An inside look at the legacy of Sadie Roberts-Joseph

Updated: Feb. 5, 2020 at 5:38 PM CST
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BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - Being near the Odell S. Williams Now and Then African American Museum is like stepping on hallowed ground. It sort of has this sacred feeling.

First, you’re met by a painting of a woman with determination in her eyes. It’s unclear what she’s working on, but finishing is clearly the goal.

Your eyes quickly race to a trolley, then a school bus with detailed portraits of African American innovators. A quote by Nelson Mandela has been painted on a piece of plywood that rests near the museum entrance. It reads, “Education is the most powerful weapon which can be used to change the world.” Education was the center of it all for Ms. Sadie.

As your eyes gaze across museum space, you find yourself wondering, What will I learn here? Who’s the teacher? Who took the time to put it together?

“She ran the idea past me and I’m thinking, ‘It sounds good. I just don’t know if it’s going to be doable in Baton Rouge.’ But somehow, someway, she made it happen,” her son, Jason Roberts says.

Roberts says his mother, Sadie Roberts-Joseph, started molding minds in the late 80s. A quick shout from the car during a drive through town would do the trick.

“’Get off the street! You can do better with your life! There’s so much more out here,’” Roberts recalls his mom saying.

Those moments, Roberts says sparked the idea for an eclectic collection.

Education was the only way Ms. Sadie felt could encourage people to be better than the day before. The wheels were turning, but another teacher and the museum’s namesake, Odell S. Williams, got the museum ball rolling.

“Back then, during segregation,” Roberts explains. “there was no African American history taught in schools and it actually wasn’t allowed to be taught.”

Roberts says Ms. Williams would sneak pictures of a lawyer, Mrs. Mary Ann Shadd Cary, early American poet, Phillis Wheatly, and educator, Mary McLeod Bethune, into the classroom.

“She would take those and stitch them into her dress, and she would sneak them into school to teach kids their African American history,” Roberts says.

Those three pieces of paper were a window of opportunity for students and stand as the foundation of the exhibit. They were given to Ms. Sadie where they are now displayed in the African American Achievers room.

The museum was launched in 2001. Roberts says his mom looked around Baton Rouge and didn’t see a place for African American history, so she created it. Ms. Sadie poured her love into the project. Some of the naive eyes of the community were opened to African American culture.

Five rooms, affectionately named for inventors and even former President Barack Obama are filled with artifacts. Those pieces collected over the last 20 years rest in a home right next to New St. Luke Baptist Church. Roberts says it was a crazy journey watching her start in the small sanctuary in the church next door.

“Every time I would come home, there would exponentially more items that she collected," he said.

But the road to finding those special pieces, her son says sometimes turned into late nights.

“She met a vendor one night. It had to be at 10 p.m. in a hotel room. He had all his things laid out on the bed,” her son recalls.

Roberts says he was skeptical of the after-hours meeting, so he would tag along for the ride. Now more than ever as the interim curator he understands why his mom pushed for more.

Your eyes bounce from room to room in the museum. Skin from a cheetah hangs while a portrait of women made of butterfly wings sits just below it. Ms. Sadie’s love comes as no surprise, but did you know this?

“A lot of these things she purchased with her personal money,” Roberts says.

Because when artifacts speak, it belonged.

“The Sankofa bird. It’s an African symbol that represents looking back to the past, retrieving everything good and bringing it forward to the future,” Roberts says.

That particular image, Roberts says sparked the motto of the museum: Reaching back into your past and taking a step into your future.

Now, some items were donated, hailing from Haiti and West Africa. Ms. Sadie nurtured the culture she felt was removed when the enslaved made the journey over.

Roberts says his mom would always say African American history was year-round because everyday things weren’t just invented in February. She reminded whoever would listen.

“‘Well hey, go turn the air it’s little hot. By the way, did you know that Frederick Jones was the person that invented the air conditioner?’” Roberts said.

This sign is hanging outside the front door of the museum.
This sign is hanging outside the front door of the museum.(WAFB)

We're missing those teachable moments now. Her untimely death still hangs over the community.

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“I just didn’t know how far those small arms reached. She’s short but apparently, she was a giant as well,” her son says.

Daughter of a sharecropper, Ms. Sadie built something from nothing. Roberts knew his mom had a public presence but didn’t fully understand until now, her reach beyond Baton Rouge.

WATCH: Baton Rouge community icon Sadie Roberts-Joseph remembered at funeral

“I’ve always had a thing for teaching and working with kids, much like my mom. I grew up watching her do it and I saw the joy that she got from it even as a kid. I guess some of that rubbed off on me,” he says.

Roberts uses his mom’s magic to make an impression on the world, never passing up a moment to teach and share his mom’s story to a listening ear.

“I can be in the worse mood, but talking about my mom always lights me up. It’s just one of the residual effects of her love for 45 years," he said.

The museum is open two days a week (Wednesday and Friday) from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tours are available by appointment.

Roberts says he has been applying for grants since his mother’s passing for additional funding. He’s in the planning process of organizing a fundraiser to draw in support from the community and local businesses.

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