Black in the USSR: The Life of Joseph Jepthro Roane

It’s funny how you search for the story of one ancestor and stumble upon another’s story that just leaves you saying “Wow”.  The story of Joseph Jepthro Roane, a cousin, is a perfect example.

Joseph Roane was born in 1905 in the town of Kremlin, Westmoreland County, Virginia. He was the son of John Hampton Roane and Emily Virginia Griggs, both descendants of long-standing free families of color in Westmoreland County. One of 15 children, Joseph grew up in a happy and prosperous farming family. This family were contemporary cousins to my paternal Roane grandmother, Susie Julia Roane.

Picture of John Hampton Roane and is wife, Emma Virginia Griggs.
John Hampton Roane and Emma Virginia Griggs. Credit: Burton, Cassandra. 2000. Westmoreland County, p. 59. Arcadia Publishing. 

He became an agronomist and trained at Virginia State University. No doubt his intention was to take over the family’s farming business.

apicture of The John Hampton Roane house in Westmoreland, Virginia
The John Hampton Roane house in Westmoreland, Virginia. Credit: Burton, Cassandra. 2000. Westmoreland County, Arcadia Publishing.

In 1931 Oliver Golden, an agricultural specialist who had studied at Tuskegee Institute, organized a group of 16 black Americans of various professional backgrounds to travel to Uzbekistan in Soviet Central Asia to develop an experimental cotton plantation. Joseph and his wife, Sadie Vivian Russell-Roane, were part of this party.

Picture of Joseph Jepthro Roane and his wife, Sadie Vivian Russell
Joseph Jepthro Roane and Sadie Vivian Russell. The John Hampton Roane house in Westmoreland, Virginia. Credit: Burton, Cassandra. 2000. Westmoreland County, Arcadia Publishing.

Joseph would answer the question of why he left the US for the USSR in a series of interviews between 2010 and 2012. The reason was entirely rational and not political. The Depression in America continued to worsen and the USSR actually offered better financial prospects. The men were paid the equivalent of several hundred dollars a month, a fortune by the standards of the Great Depression. By his own admission, Joseph didn’t even know what socialism was. There was a well-paid opportunity on offer and he took it.

While Joseph may not have held any political interests, Stalin’s communist party certainly did. Stalin’s communist party believed that blacks, as members of an oppressed social group, would be key participants in the Communist revolution of the time. By demonstrating racial tolerance and progressive thinking, Soviet leaders were enhancing their country’s appeal to liberal-minded white and black intellectuals around the world. The aim was to secure sympathy for the Communist cause.

Politics aside, Joseph found himself part of a group of African American expatriates who were encouraged by the Stalinist government in the 1930s to work in the Soviet Union building a society free of class and racism. And he tells a telling story with regard to the latter. The only experience of racism he ever experienced in the USSR was at the hands of fellow Americans, who were white, in a Moscow barbershop. Their white compatriots demanded that he and another African American leave. When Joseph relayed the request of the two gentlemen to the Russian barbers, the barbers insisted that the two white gentlemen had to leave, not even allowing the two men to wipe the shaving lather from their faces before being ejected (source: Blacks in the Soviet Union (excerpt)

In October 1931 Joseph and Sadie, along with their compatriots, settled in the tiny village of Yangiyul, Uzbekistan.

Map showing the location of Yangiyul in Uzbekistan
Map showing the location of Yangiyul in Uzbekistan

Their 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.

Yosif Stalin Kim Roane, c/1934 in Uzbekistan. Credit: Burton, Cassandra. 2000. Westmoreland County, p. 59. Arcadia Publishing.
Yosif Stalin Kim Roane, c/1934 in Uzbekistan. Credit: Burton, Cassandra. 2000. Westmoreland County, Arcadia Publishing.

Joseph and Sadie had a son while they were in Uzbekistan. Originally named Joseph, the Russians found it a curious name choice. So Joseph Junior was hastily and duly re-christened Yosif Stalin Kim Roane.

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 turn 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 Westmoreland.  Little Yosif arrived speaking Russian, the only language that he knew. Apparently, Yosif’s classmates were amazed and startled to meet a fellow American who only spoke Russian and could not understand a word of English.

Joseph balanced farming with social activism.  He was invited to be one of the first three teachers at the A. T. Johnson High School; the new and only African American public high school in Westmoreland in 1937.  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 and the Masons.

When I began this journey, little did I know I would have a family connection to Stalin, the USSR, or his purges. Like other ancestors, Joseph has opened my eyes to yet another aspect of history entirely unknown to me. The histories of African Americans who left the US in the 1930s for all major points in Western Europe (Berlin, Paris, Madrid, etc) are well documented. It never occurred to me that there were those who left America for Eastern Europe and Soviet Central Asia. And yet, there they are in Vienna, Warsaw, Budapest, Riga, and pretty much any Soviet-controlled Central Asian ‘Stan you care to mention.

Cousin Joseph, thank you for the wow moment and an unforgettable story.

You can hear more about his life in the audio podcast below:

Kremlin to Kremlin: The Joseph Roane Story

Note: If the audio player doesn’t appear, you can listen to the podcast by visiting:

For more information about the life and times of Joseph Jepthro Roane, and his expedition to Uzbekistan, here’s some great background reading:

  1. Burton, Cassandra. 2000. Westmoreland, Arcadia Publishing (Google Books):

  2. Davies, Nick. 1990. The Black Russians.

  3. Russia and the Former Soviet Union, Encarta Africana (excerpt):

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5 thoughts on “Black in the USSR: The Life of Joseph Jepthro Roane

  1. Hi! I also find his photo in the Hughes archives and used it as part of an exhibit at The Smithsonian. It was just a projection. He is wearing an Uzbek hat! I’m so happy to read this genealogy. I’m writing about the photographs that Langston Hughes took and his is the most compelling. Thank you for this! Let’s be in touch!

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