Kremlin to Kremlin: the Joseph Roane Story

Joseph Roane c.1932

Joseph Roane c.1932

In 2015, Stratford Hall was awarded a discretionary grant from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities for the production of a 23-minute video narrative/oral history of Joseph J. Roane–Kremlin to Kremlin.  The film uses pre-taped interviews, supporting visuals and elements from a 2014 Stratford event of the same name.  The film of this unforgettable story of Roane and his family will be shown at A. T. Johnson Museum in Montross, 2-4 p.m. on February 27, 2016, free of charge.

Kremlin to Kremlin is the story of Joseph Roane, a much respected black educator in Westmoreland County, who had very unusual journey that took him and his wife Sadie 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 of escape from a capitalistic society.

Sadie Roane c.1932

Sadie Roane c.1932

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 a capitalist society. In exchange for 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. His group’s mission was to improve 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 of 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.

yosif-stalin-kimroane

Yosif Roane

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 Yusaf returned to America. Yusaf 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 became intense, and this included the African-American émigrés. 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.

When the Roanes returned to the United States, they settled where it all began–in 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, colorblind 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 the Soviet Uzbekistan had not tempered his and Sadie’s future. If not committed social revolutionaries, 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, 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 for “coloreds.” 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 Associatio, and was a life-long member of the NAACP, the Masons, and a leader in his church.

Here is the 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 granddaughter, Yolanda Roane Walden; two grandsons, Joseph and Charles Walden; two great grand-daughters, Dekeya and Shalanda Walden. He also leaves to cherish his memory six sisters and three brothers.”

Posted by Jon Bachman, Educational Programs Coordinator