The sinking of RMS Titanic in 1912 has been remembered by generations of people around the world as the event that took the lives of some 1,500 passengers and crew members. The ship was making its way between Ireland and the U.S. at the time when a collision with an iceberg showed just how fast the “unsinkable” ship could be submerged. Many women and children were helped into lifeboats, their husbands and fathers often staying on board to help usher people off the ship. In all the ship however, there was only one Black man and he suffered the aforementioned fate, though his wife and daughters made it to safety.
Joseph Philippe Lemercier Laroche was a young engineer from Haiti who boarded the Titanic with his wife, Juliette (a white woman), and their 2 daughters. At the time Laroche was vying for employment in his chosen field and found that he had to travel in order to make that happen. Laroche was born to an elite family whose ancestors included Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the leader of the Haitian Revolution and the first leader of free Haiti. At the age of 15 Laroche and his mother arrived in France so that he could have the finest education and he later married a white Frenchwoman there.
The couple had 2 children quickly and Juliette found out in early 1912 that she was expecting a third. The family had been planning to move anyways since racial discrimination in France had prevented Laroche from finding work up to that point- despite his fine education. The original plan was to travel at the end of 1912, but the pregnancy changed the family’s plans.
The original passage had been booked as first class aboard the La France ship, but they made other arrangements to travel second class aboard Titanic. The close knit family disapproved of the dining policy for children aboard La France which restricted where they could eat. Keep in mind this was an era when upper class families often had separate mealtimes for adults and children. The policies of La France were that children were to stay in the nursery during their meals and not dine with their parents.
Having settled their passage, the family set off towards Haiti- where Laroche expected to have a better chance at proper employment and could live independently from his in-laws. But, fate intervened in the lives of the Laroche family and they set off on the Titanic instead, where children were allowed to eat with their parents in second class.
The family was reported to have experienced quite a bit of racism from both the passengers and the crew while aboard Titanic, something which was noted in historical accounts from witnesses. In fact, the White Star Line (which operated the Titanic ) was later forced to apologize for comments the crew had made about Italians and other “dark skinned” passengers on board the ship.
The fact that the Laroche family was interracial was most certainly a catalyst for the racist abuse they received. But, racism was far from the last trouble the Laroche family endured.
Just before midnight on April 14th, 1912, the ship hit a massive iceberg 400 miles south of Newfoundland. Passengers had only minutes to get into the lifeboats- which were too few in number to have saved everyone even if they had had more time. Laroche sent his wife and the 2 girls onto a lifeboat where they were later picked up by the ship, Carpathia, which had received the distress call but was no where near Titanic when it went down.
Laroche was presumed to have gone down with the ship, though very little is known about the final moments of the only Black man aboard the Titanic. Laroche was only 25-years-old when he perished.
Juliette returned to France with the children, successfully sued the White Star Line for damages, and later became an entrepreneur. The story of Joesph Laroche only recently came to light after his daughter, Louise, gave an interview in 1995 to a fellow member of the Titanic Historical Society (who happened to also speak French).