One of the things that makes Titanic an eternal source of fascination for me is the sheer number of people and stories aboard the ship (with approximately 1,300 passengers and 900 crew, you’ve got a lifetime of research ahead of you should you choose to go down the rabbit hole). Every year I try to highlight the stories of one or two passengers or crew who particularly fascinate me. This year, I’m fascinated by Joseph Laroche, one of only two known passengers of color aboard Titanic.
There’s lots online about Joseph Laroche, including the incredible story of how one of his descendants, now living in Chicago, stumbled across a photo of him in a magazine and discovered her family’s amazing connections to Titanic. The basic facts of his story are these: Laroche was born in Cap Hatien, Haiti, in 1886. At the age of fifteen, he went to France, where he studied engineering. Upon graduation, he married a Frenchwoman, Juliette Lafargue, and they had two daughters, Simonne and Louise. Joseph eventually decided to move his family back to Haiti for financial and personal reasons: facing racial discrimination in France, he was unable to find the kind of high-paying job his education had prepared him for. Fed up with the situation, and in need of money to pay Louise’s medical bills (his second daughter was born premature, and suffered from health problems), he decided to move back to Haiti where his financial and professional prospects were better.
The Laroche family’s tale is one of the many Titanic stories that make you painfully aware of life’s coincidences, and the exact confluence of circumstances that must converge in order for us to meet our fate. To wit: the family had originally planned to move to Haiti in 1913, but when Juliette discovered she was pregnant for the third time, they moved the timing of the trip up so that she wouldn’t have to travel while heavily pregnant. Then they had first-class tickets for another ocean liner, the France, but exchanged them last minute when they discovered the ship’s child policy decreed that all children must stay in the nursery at all times — a policy that didn’t sit well with papa Laroche, who wanted to be able to dine with his adorable daughters. They decided to travel on Titanic instead.
Sadly, Joseph met the fate of so many men aboard Titanic and did not survive the sinking. That’s right: the man who changed his ticket because he wanted to spend more time with his children would spend his last moments alive kissing his little ones goodbye as he put them into a lifeboat. He never lived to see the birth of his third child, a boy, whom his mother named Joseph in his honor.
Joseph is remembered in other ways, too. The wonderful Encyclopedia Titanica website has an entry on him and his family, and recent research into the presence of passengers of color has brought attention to his previously overlooked story. His youngest daughter Louise was also present at the 1996 Titanic Historic Society memorial dedication of a plaque at Cherbourg, along with Millvina Dean. Louise lived until 1998, making her among the seven longest living Titanic survivors.
It seems strange that someone like Louise Laroche, who lived so long, shouldn’t be better known — she’s not quite a household name like Millvina Dean. Why? Is race a factor? Probably. The fact that there were only two passengers of color aboard the entire ship isn’t a coincidence. (Incidentally, the other passenger was Victor Giglio, of Italian and Egyptian origin. He was a first class passenger, and was Benjamin Guggenheim’s valet.) I’ve done some research today, trying to discover whether this was official White Star policy, or just a side effect of Edwardian times. Though I’ve been unable to find a definitive answer (the folks on the Titanic Facebook group are divided on the topic), it would seem that some sort of policy, whether official or unwritten, was certainly in effect — you don’t get numbers like 2 out of 1,300 otherwise. It has also been suggested that the Laroche family’s second class tickets may have been less a function of their last-minute exchange and more a question of White Star only grudgingly letting them aboard. Given Joseph’s previous first class tickets on the France, and the fact that he was a professional man from an educated and privileged family, it is doubtful he would have chosen to travel second class if he could have traveled first.
Certainly racial discrimination was at appalling levels in 1912, and there is little reason to think that the White Star line was either bastion of racial equality or any more virulently discriminatory than any other ocean liner at the time. There is a fascinating and complicated story involving Lead Belly, Jack Johnson, and some fictional sensational accounts made by the (white) press at the time about a Black stoker who stabbed a man aboard Titanic. Lead Belly’s song “Titanic,” which responds to racial conditions at the time of the disaster and may also have been prompted in part by the phony stoker story, contained a verse about Jack Johnson being turned away from the boat (there’s no evidence this ever happened, but the point is well made). When you listen to the song, the lines “Fare thee well, Titanic, fare thee well” take on a resigned, ironic quality that makes the tune incredibly haunting.
Black newspapers around the country responded with weary irritation to the stoker story — “We thought it would be strange if there were no colored persons aboard the fated ship. Of course, he had to be made to appear in the light of a dastard” — and also rightly pointed out the apparent absence of any actual persons of color aboard ship, or at least the absence of any coverage of their stories: “There may have been a Negro in the sinking of the great steamship Titanic off the Newfoundland coast last week, but the newspapers have not as yet discovered the fact. It is rather remarkable that there could be so great a tragedy without a Negro somewhere concealed or exposed in it.” Naturally, they were right, as Joseph Laroche proves. Another paper, with faith in the absolute certainty that this was true, mourned for this as-yet-unknown person: “[The] daily press has made no special mention of him, [but] we know he was there, and that he died like the other men. And we shed tears to his memory as well as to the men of other nationalities who died with him.”
Nowadays we do have a name, and a face, and a memory. Let’s leave the story of Joseph Laroche for now with this 1912 interview in the French newspaper Le Matin with the widowed Juliette Laroche, in which she recounts her last glimpse of her husband, Joseph Philippe Lemercier Laroche:
“There, on the bridge, in the midst of the crush, I caught a glimpse of my husband…I hardly had time to shout a final farewell to my husband. I heard his voice, above the hubub, shouting to me:
” – I’ll see you soon, my darling! … There’ll be room for everyone, go with the lifeboats, … Look after our little girls … See you soon!”