What Happened to the Only Black Family on the TITANIC

By Hughes, Zondra | Ebony, June 2000 | Go to article overview
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What Happened to the Only Black Family on the TITANIC

Hughes, Zondra, Ebony

IN the blockbuster film Titanic, Leonardo DiCaprio's role could have easily been played by a Black man--and it would have been historically accurate. In fact, the life story of Haitian native Joseph Phillippe Lemercier Laroche is far more intriguing than the movie's lead character, but no one knew of his existence until recently. The silence about the stranger-than-fiction life story of the Titanic's only Black passenger astonishes noted 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."

Until now, that is. Eighty-eight years after the biggest ship disaster in history, and three years after release of the Titanic movie, the story of the only Black man to perish in the 1912 disaster is being revealed, thanks to the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, host to the largest Titanic exhibit ever, and the Titanic Historical Society.

Laroche, who was born in Cap Haiten, Haiti, on May 26, 1889, came from a powerful family--Laroche's uncle, Dessalines M. Cincinnatus Leconte, was president of Haiti. The Laroches had been prosperous since the 17th century when a French captain named Laroche (in Haiti on military duty) married a young Haitian girl.

At the age of 15, Laroche left Haiti to study engineering in Beauvais, France. Several years later, while visiting nearby Villejuif, he met Juliette Lafargue, the 22-year-old daughter of a local wine seller. Although impressed by the handsome young Laroche, Lafargue's father, a widower, did not allow Laroche to marry his daughter until 1908, after he received his engineering degree.

A long way from his privileged lifestyle of Haiti, Laroche found France to be bleak and oppressive. Although Laroche was a cultured gentleman who spoke English and French fluently, and had an engineering degree, he couldn't find a job because of his color. "It was a great disappointment to him that having earned his engineering degree in France he could not find employment there," Geller says. "No matter how qualified he was, the blackness of his skin kept him from securing a position that paid his worth."

Laroche's family was growing and there were no opportunities for him to support them. The couple's first daughter, Simonne, was born a year into the marriage, and their second daughter, Louise, was prematurely the following year and was sickly. They were living in Lafargue's home, and the mounting medical bills for baby Louise were draining the wine seller's profits.

Laroche, a proud and hardworking man, grew tired of having to rely on his father-in-law's generosity and decided to return to Haiti, where he would be guaranteed work in engineering. Juliette Laroche was initially skeptical about abandoning her elderly father, but soon decided the move would be best for the family, especially for their ailing daughter. The family's plan to travel to Haiti was hastened, however, by the news that Juliette Laroche was pregnant once again.

According to historian Geller, Laroche's mother was so overwhelmed that her son was coming home with his new family that she purchased tickets on the French liner La France as a homecoming gift. When the couple realized that their children would not be permitted to dine with them on the liner, they exchanged their La France tickets for second-class reservations on the Titanic, which was the largest and most lavish ship built prior to that date. The style of the decor on the vessel ranged from Italian Renaissance to Georgian, and the cost of a first-class parlor suite was $4,350, equivalent to $50,000 today.

The Laroche family boarded the "palace of the sea" on Wednesday, April 10, 1912, at Cherbourg, France, for the scheduled five-day crossing to New York.

Never before had the richest people in the world flaunted their wealth so prominently.

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