From 11 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., August 23, 2014, in the A.T. Johnson High School Auditorium in Montross, Virginia, the public is invited to attend a free lecture and discussion revealing the life of Joseph Roane, a local Westmoreland County citizen, illustrating an unusual and dramatic story of the late 1920s to early 1930s during the height of the American depression. Light refreshments will be served.
Why tell the Joseph Roane story?
It is a story of survival, resilience, courage and self-fulfillment.
Very few people in Westmoreland County have ever heard of the story.
The story offer a unique look into the geo-politics of the 1930s.
Few people today have heard of African-American émigrés traveling to the Soviet Union in the 1930s.
The oral history opportunities will soon evaporate as family members pass away.
How will the story be told?
Lecture and panel discussion
The event will be dividing into two distinct parts.
Participants: Yosif Stalin Roane, Lloyd Wright, Shirley Harris, Alphonso Roane, Norman Jenkins, Herbert T. Gaskins, Cherry Dowling Blackwell, William Bankett, Marian Ashton and Jon Bachman.
Please contact Marian Ashton at 301-520-6796, or Jon Bachman at 804-493-1972 with any questions about the event.
Background for the Event:
During the last four years, Stratford Hall has been partnering with the A.T. Johnson Museum in Montross, Virginia, in the development of programs that emphasize the historical effects and efforts of the African American community to gain educational equity.
In 2012, at an event “Reflections on Black History,” a number of former African-American educators shared their oral histories of the county’s change from segregated schools to those that were integrated. During a series of personal reflections, an elderly gentleman approached the podium and leaned forward and said, “I bet none of you have ever heard of Uzbekistan?” Later, I would learn his name, Yosif Stalin Roane. Stalin? I was caught off-guard, and leaned forward unprepared for the story I heard, or even more, the story that would unfold; a story historically significant, yet virtually unknown to our local community. A story I thought should be heard. Kremlin to Kremlin is the story of Yosif’s father, Joseph Roane, a much respected black educator in Westmoreland County, who had very unusual journey 81 years earlier, a journey that took him and his wife from the fields of Westmoreland County to the deserts of Central Asia.
In 1931, as the Great Depression deepened, Joseph Roane had found himself and his new wife in search of hope and opportunity. As a college-degreed agronomist, Joseph faced a bleak future. Even with a college education, the life for most ‘colored’ men was a fusion of on-going racist hiring policies, class struggles, and likely unemployment.
Roane’s decision would be hinged on the association with another college-educated and disillusioned African American, Oliver Golden. Golden was an agricultural specialist who had studied at Tuskegee Institute. Underemployed and frustrated by the overt inequalities faced by African-Americans, he became absorbed by the communist ideology of the late 1920s. Oliver and his wife Bertha joined the myriad of prophets, dreamers, workers, wanderers and refugees drawn to the Soviet promise–an escape from the capitalistic society. Oliver and his wife, like so many, decided to make a difference and sacrifice security, comfort and, in some cases, considerable wealth in order to build the new Soviet society.
Golden would travel to the Soviet Union in 1928 and enroll at the Stalin Communist University of the Toilers of the East (KUTV) in Moscow. There he completed a 14-month program, which dealt with Marxist-Leninist theory, training in espionage, guerrilla warfare, secret codes, and techniques of underground political work. Now, as a member of the Soviet Comintern, Golden was expressly given the task of returning to the United States to recruit other African Americans who had technical and professional education that could be useful to the Stalinist regime.
In 1931, through college contacts and associates, Golden met Roane and organized a group of 16 other African-Americans of various professional backgrounds, who shared in his disillusionment with capitalist society. In exchange for a three-year commitments with the Soviet government, the group members were given houses, maids, free health care and several hundred dollars a month.
In October 1931 Joseph and Sadie traveled to the nation of Uzbekistan in Soviet Central Asia and the tiny village of Yangiyul. This group’s mission was to improve on the local strains of desert cotton. Roane and two other émigrés spent three years crossing Uzbek seeds with American seeds and finally produced a new strain of cotton that took 25 percent less time to mature than cotton in the American South.
What he didn’t see was that he and his ethnicity were part of a carefully constructed Stalinist plan to exploit both his intellectual expertise and racial characteristics. Behind the lofty rhetoric expressed to the Roanes and other black émigrés of Soviet racial equality, world peace, anti-colonialism, and economic advancement of the working class, lay the very grim reality of the Stalin 5- year plans and the purges.
Stalin’s communist party believed that blacks, as members of an oppressed social group, would be key participants in the Communist revolution. Giving blacks employment was a means to that end. Also, by demonstrating the Soviet Union’s own racial tolerance and progressive thinking, Soviet leaders were enhancing their country’s appeal to liberal-minded white and black intellectuals around the world, thus securing sympathy for the Communist cause.
When the first three-year contract expired, all the farmers, including Roane, signed up for another three years. He would be reassigned to Georgia to help operate a tomato-canning plant.
Things took a decidedly less harmonious tone in 1937. All the members of Golden’s group were ordered to adopt Soviet citizenship immediately; those who did not were expelled from the Soviet Union. Joseph, Sadie and their 6-year-old son Yosif returned to America. Yosif could only speak Russian.
By 1937, Stalin’s purges were in full swing. Anyone suspected of being remotely hostile to Stalin was arrested and interned in labor and death camps, and suspicion of foreigners, including the African-American émigrés, became intense. Golden would miss his own execution because he was out of town when the secret police came for him. He would live on and die in the Soviet Union. His daughter still resides in Moscow.
Joseph, Sadie and their 6-year-old son Yosif returned to America, then on to where it all began, Westmoreland County, Virginia. Yosif’s classmates were amazed and startled to have a classmate that spoke Russian and could not understand English.
Roane’s life had been shaped by forces and events beyond his control. The institutionalized racism that had blocked his aspirations in the United States brought about his decision to leave the United States. Many of his fellow African American émigrés were driven by more committed political and radical ideals. Communism, with its professed classless, color blind equality seemed their natural choice. Why live in the oppressive and hypercritical United States? Though Roane would profess pragmatic decisions, one wonders if the social revolution he saw in Soviet Uzbekistan had not tempered his and Sadie’s future. Both Joseph and Sadie’s post-Soviet life was focused on social and educational opportunities for their fellow African Americans. Upon returning to Westmoreland County in 1937, Joseph balanced farming with social activism. He was invited to be one of the first three teachers at the new and only public high school for African Americans (1937) at A. T. Johnson High School. He founded the Virginia Farmers of America program for black high school students. Roane would go on to be a consultant to the Virginia Fisheries Laboratory & Forestry Association. He founded the Virginia Colored Farmers Association, and was a life-long member of the NAACP, the Masons, and a leader in his church.
His obituary as reported by the Virginia Pilot:
“Mr. Joseph Jepthro Roane, 90, died Wednesday, August 2, 1995, at the Riverside Tappahannock Hospital, Tappahannock, Va.
Born in Westmoreland County, Kremlin, Va., Mr. Roane retired in 1971 after teaching in Westmoreland Co. for 34 years and six years in the U.S.S.R. He was a member of the Potomac Baptist Church, Hague, Va., and the widower of Sadie Russell Roane. Mr. Roane was the second child born to the late John H. and Virginia Griggs Roane.
Mr. Roane is survived by a devoted son, Yosif S. Roane and daughter-in-law, Bernice Roane; one grand-daughter, Yolanda Roane Welden; two grandsons, Joseph and Charles Welden; two great grand-daughters, Dekeya and Shalanda Welden. He also leaves to cherish his memory six sisters and three brothers.
Funeral services are planned for Monday, August 7, 1 p.m., from the Potomac Baptist Church, Hague, Va., with a family visitation Sunday evening, August 6, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Potomac Baptist Church.
Background Information written by Jon Bachman, Public Events Manager, Stratford Hall