The story of Joseph Phillippe Lemercier Laroche, the only man of African descent to perish in the Titanic ship sinking disaster has never been told and the 1997 blockbuster epic romantic movie "Titanic" directed by James Cameron and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane et al did not portray a single black or African on board the ship. The presence of an important Haitian man and his white wife was only revealed thanks to the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, host to the largest Titanic exhibit ever – and the Titanic Historical Society.
The movie Titanic deliberately told the story of the hundreds of people (all Caucasians/whites) who died in the world’s biggest passenger shipping disaster in 1912, but subsequent research led to the discovery that there had been a family of mixed African (father) and European (mother) descent on-board. In all the reports, documentaries and films about the ship this fact – like many relating to people of African descent – had been erased from history.
After the Titanic struck an iceberg historians agree that Laroche was calm and heroic. As the ship sank, Joseph stuffed his coat packets with money and jewelry and took his pregnant wife and children up to the boat deck and managed to get them into the lifeboat. He wrapped the coat around his wife, and his last words were: “Here, take this, you are going to need it. I’ll get another boat. God be with you. I’ll see you in New York.” Joseph Laroche died in the sinking and was the only passenger of black descent (besides his daughters) on the Titanic. This was the wonderful love story Titanic movie missed!
On 10th April 1912, the doomed ship set sail from Southampton with 2,200 passengers and crew. Four days later, the Titanic collided with an iceberg and sank – 1,500 people died and 700 survived.
The silence about the Titanic’s only passenger of African descent astonished Titanic historian Judith Geller, author of Titanic: Women and Children First, who said, “It is strange that nowhere in the copious 1912 press descriptions of the ship and the interviews with the survivors was the presence of a black family among the passengers ever mentioned.”
Joseph Laroche was born in Haiti in 1886. He came from a powerful family. His uncle, Dessalines M. Cincinnatus Leconte, was president of Haiti and the Laroches had been prosperous since the 17th Century.
Aged fifteen, Joseph left Haiti and travelled to Beauvais, France, to study engineering. He met Juliette Lafargue – the twenty-two-year-old daughter of a local wine seller – when he visited nearby Villejuif. Although impressed by the handsome young man, Lafargue’s father, a widower, did not allow Laroche to marry his daughter until 1908, after he had received his Engineering degree.
They quickly had their first daughter, Simonne, followed by the couple’s second daughter, prematurely-born Louise. She was a sickly child and the medical expenses drained the resources of Joseph’s father-in-law with whom they were living, while Joseph searched for an opportunity to support his growing family.
Despite his degree and being a cultured gentleman who spoke English and French fluently, Joseph couldn’t find a job because of his race. Feeling that he stood a better chance in Haiti, he decided to go home. Juliette Laroche did not want to leave her elderly father but realised it was the right move for their growing family, which was to expand even further when, just weeks into their travel plans, she was found to be expecting again.
Initially, the Laroches was supposed to travel on another ship, but when the couple realised that their children would not be permitted to dine with them, they exchanged their tickets for second-class reservations on the Titanic, owned by The White Star Line Company.
Decked out with décor that ranged from Italian Renaissance to Georgian, the Titanic was the largest and most lavish ship built to date.
The first-class passengers were a collective of some of the richest people in the world, the creme de la creme of Anglo-American society who flaunted their wealth prominently. The second-class passengers were middle-class business leaders and managers of the community, and third-class passengers (steerage) were primarily English, Irish and Middle Eastern immigrants in search of a better life in America.
Whilst the Laroches did not have first-class reservations, Laroche made it quite clear that his family was second-class to no-one. Their lounge was a large, spacious room with panelling in sycamore and was comparable to first-class accommodations on other sea liners of the day. The couple also shared many of the things enjoyed by the first-class passengers, including dining in the same saloon and socialising with some of their fellow passengers.
Their second-class tickets, however, did not shield them from the stares and the racial insults of being the only multiracial family in a sea of upper-class ‘whiteness’ and scorn even from the crew, who saw them as below them despite their obvious gentility.
Nevertheless, the Laroches enjoyed their mini-vacation aboard the liner. They were young and in love, and Joseph was anticipating the birth of a son who would be his namesake and who would be raised in his homeland. It was a relief to know that his family would be entitled to a good life in Haiti, free of the racism, poverty and uncertain future that had plagued him in France.
However, on Sunday, the unspeakable horror that became known as the most tragic event in civilian maritime history unfolded.
After a hearty breakfast, the Laroches attended church services. Other passengers relaxed in the steamy Turkish Bath (sauna), some strolled on the decks or sipped coffee and expensive teas in the Cafe Parisien, while the gentlemen enjoyed fine wine and cigars in the smoking room and had an altogether wonderful day on the sea liner.
It was nearly midnight when Joseph woke Juliette and told her that the ship had suffered an accident. He put all of their valuables in his pockets and he and his wife carried their sleeping daughters to the ship’s deck, only to find that the ship had just sixteen lifeboats and four collapsible boats ready instead of the expected sixty-four for the number of people on board. Worse still, the crew had never gone through an evacuation procedure and were panicked.
Despite the pandemonium around him, Laroche – knowing it was the last time he would see his family – remained calm and managed somehow to put his wife and daughters into a lifeboat after the Captain had ordered, “Women and children only.”
Surrounded by wailing widows and floating bodies, Juliette Laroche pressed her daughters to her bosom to give them warmth while her own feet became blue and frozen.
Finally, six hours later, the boat Carpathia rescued the Titanic survivors and took them to safety in New York.
Almost half of the bodies of the victims were later recovered but the body of Joseph Laroche was never found.
Pregnant and destitute, Juliette returned to France. Eight months later, Joseph Lemercier Laroche Jr entered the world bearing a striking resemblance to his handsome father, but then the First World War erupted in Europe. It ruined the winery and thrust the entire family into poverty.
Juliette sued the White Star Line for damages and in 1918 – six years after the death of her husband – and was awarded 150,000 francs. She used her settlement to open a fabric-dyeing business.
Although she was now able to support her family, the Titanic tragedy scarred Juliette for life. Her love for her lost husband never waned; she never remarried and remained in silent fear of losing any more of her family. Of her children, only her son married and had two sons and a daughter.
In 1980, Juliette Laroche, who was by this time paralysed on the right side, died – sixty-eight years after the death of her husband. She is buried in a grave bearing a tombstone which reads: ‘Juliette Laroche, 1889-1980, wife of Joseph Laroche, lost at sea RMS Titanic, April 15th, 1912’.
Joseph Laroche Jr died in 1987 but his wife and his sister Louise lived together in the family home until January 1998, when Louise died. The Laroche grandchildren – who still live in Paris – have held steadfastly to the family tradition of never discussing the Titanic disaster.