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Joseph Laroche: Did you know there was a Black passenger in "Titanic"?

Laroche, Courtesy of Titanic Hist. Society

The dramatic story of the black passenger who traveled on the Titanic is no new discovery, but visitors to a a popular exhibit in the state’s capital may not learn of it. It’s one of thousands of tales and at least two movies about the world’s largest passenger ship. The Titanic went down in icy seas in 1912 on its maiden voyage.

The hundreds of patrons who have come to Tallahassee’s Brogan Museum to see popular exhibit -  Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition - might want to learn more about Joseph Laroche.  As does the museum, the 1997 Paramount Pictures depiction of the massive ship and its infamous disaster failed to share the evidence.
Here’s a story few people know:

~ Joseph Laroche ~

On April 10, 1912, Joseph Laroche, accompanied by his wife Juliette and two young daughters, took a train from Paris to Cherbourg, France, where they boarded the ill-fated R.M.S. Titanic, the largest passenger ship in the world.

It was the ship’s maiden voyage, from Southhampton England to New York City. It ended in one of the most famous episodes in maritime history and the largest peacetime disaster at sea. From documents and histories, we can piece together facts about Laroche, who, in his lifetime, received a good education, but,  like many of his counterparts, encountered racism: 

He was born on May 26, 1886 in Cap Haitien, Haiti on the northern coast of the country, its second-largest city. Today the city is home to the second-largest airport in the country and attracts many tourists. Laroche came from a rich lineage, as his uncle, Cincinnatus Leconte, was once president of the Caribbean island. Leconte’s great-grand-father was an African slave who served as Haiti’s first president in its then newly-independent state. He was addressed as “Emporer Jacques I of Haiti.”

In 1901, 15-year-old Laroche left home with dreams of becoming an engineer. According to the Titanic Historical Society (THS,) located in Indian Orchard, Mass., he traveled to Beauvais, France with teacher Monseigneur Kersuzan, the Lord Bishop of Haiti. On a trip to Villejuif, France, Joseph met Juliette Marie Louise Lafargue, an upper-middle-class woman three years his junior and daughter of a wine-seller. The two fell in love and married at the Lafargue home in March 1908.

By then Joseph had graduated with his certificate. However, racial discrimination in the country hindered a brown-skinned person from finding adequate work. The newlywed and father of two was able to find work, but was not paid the salary someone of his caliber deserved, according to the THS.

Joseph Phillipe Lemercier Laroche, a Haitian-born, French-trained engineer and a close relative of the president of Haiti, is believed to have been the only Black passenger in the Titanic. He died during the ship’s sinking, while his pregnant wife, Juliette, and his two daughters, Simonne and Louise, survived and returned to France, the country he was trying to leave to look for better professional opportunities in his native Haiti.
His wife and his two daughters, Simmone and Louisianna

By March 1912 Louise was pregnant with the couple’s third child, leaving them no choice but to move to Haiti, where a young engineer of any race was sure to be in high demand. Laroche’s mother bought first-class tickets for her son’s family to travel on the French ship, Le France. However, the couple fatefully traded the tickets for first-class Titanic tickets when they learned that children could not dine with parents for meals.

On April 14, after receiving several ice warnings through wireless telegraphy operators from ships traveling the same route, Second Officer Charles Lightoller sent word to the crow’s nest lookouts Frederick Fleet and Reginald Lee to stay alert while in the danger zone.

According to the THS, just before midnight, in below 30-degree weather, Fleet noticed a black object right ahead and reached for the crow’s nest bell, ringing it three times. He radioed “There is ice ahead!”

The ship’s officers followed the command of order but were defeated by time. The 46,000-ton liner struck an iceberg and began to take on the North Atlantic’s freezing-cold water. All first-class passengers were given advantage to life boats, followed by women and children of all classes.
Joseph Laroche saw his family off into the lifeboats.  There were not enough lifeboats for the men on the voyage, and mostly women and children survived. He perished along with more than 1,500 passengers. His body was never recovered.  Mrs. Laroche, her two daughters and unborn son survived and returned to their home in Villejuif. She named their son after his father.

The couple’s first daughter Simonne never married and died on August 8, 1973 at the age of 64. Mrs. Laroche died at the age of 91 on January 10, 1980. Louise, the younger daughter died in January 1998.

Articles across the web have revealed that people would have expected to see black people depicted in the movie Titanic doing hard labor like shoveling coal, janitorial work or serving. Some have written their opinions centered on the fact that in 1912 racism thrived.  Many have assumed that blacks could not even afford tickets aboard such a prestigious ship.

First-class parlor suites were sold for the equivalent of $50,000 today. Erin Karnell, a volunteer with the Titanic Historical Society, said in a telephone interview from their Massachusetts headquarters and museum that when revisiting historical facts, “one must understand (that) society was very structured around this time by culture and economic circumstances of people. Regardless of race, if customers had money to spend, they were granted admission.”

Karnell says that France was much freer than other nations during that time and that the Titanic held many emigrants. Lilianna Childree of the Brogan Museum says that she does not get many inquiries from visitors about the family or whether blacks travelled on the fateful voyage, but she found them mentioned in Premiere Exhibitions’ collection of visiting boarding passes, which are handed to each customer who enters the Titanic exhibit.

The company, head quartered in Atlanta, owns exclusive rights to the wreck of the Titanic and to the exhibit.
The boarding passes contain the family’s biography and facts about their cabin class, whether they survived or perished and who accompanied them on their tickets. 

John Williams, the principal designer for the Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition, is quoted as saying “When given the opportunity, we like to present human stories relevant to the city in which the Exhibition takes place.” He is associated with RMS Titanic Inc., a subsidiary of Premiere Exhibitions, and

The Laroches’ story has not gone forgotten. Biographies and facts about the Laroche’s travel history can be found in the collections of the Titanic Historical Society and the Encyclopedia Titanica, which is online.
Author Mae Kent wrote a fictional novel about Joseph Laroche’s life titled “Titanic: The Untold Story.” Kent’s book might be the only piece of fictional work highlighting the fact that there was Black presence aboard the ill-fated ship.

Ebony Magazine published a story about the Laroche family in its June 2000 issue.

Tom Joyner enlightened listeners of the Laroches in March 2011 during his “little known Black history facts” segment of his morning show. With the disaster’s 100 anniversary approaching, the THS plans to host Titanic Centennial Weekend 2012 on April 20-22 in Springfield, Mass. 

The unveiling and dedication of the Titanic Centennial Memorial will be open to the public, while other activities in the convention will require registration. The formal Titanic dinner will be one where attendees are asked to dress as an officer, passenger or crew member to recreate the ambiance of a supper aboard the White Star Line ship.