My dear colleague Brian McAdoo has forwarded this intriguing information (which he received from his mother, so my thanks to her also) about the nephew of one of Haiti’s president—the only black man to die in the famous shipwreck.
Joseph Phillippe Lemercier Laroche was the only black man, a Haitian man, to perish in the Titanic; that’s after he saved his wife and kids.
Laroche was born in Cap Haitian, Haiti, on May 26, 1886.
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.”
The story of this interracial family was not known until 2000, three years after the movie’s release, when the Chicago Museum of Science & Industry and the Titanic Historical Society revealed the information as part of a Titanic exhibit.
Joseph Laroche was born into a powerful family. His uncle, Dessalines M. Cincinnatus Leconte, was the president of Haiti. When Joseph Phillippe Lemercier was fifteen, he left Haiti to study engineering in Beauvais, France. While visiting nearby Villejuif Joseph met Miss Juliette Lafargue, the 22-year-old daughter of a local wine seller. After Joseph graduated and got his degree, he and Juliette were married in March of 1908. Their daughter Simonne was born 19 February 1909; a second daughter, Louise, was born prematurely on 2 July 1910, and suffered many subsequent medical problems.
Despite having an engineering degree, Joseph’s skin color left him unable to find employment in France. The Laroches decided to leave France for Haiti, since the family needed more money to cope with Louise’s medical bills and Joseph felt he had better opportunities to develop his engineering career in Port-au-Prince. The move was planned for 1913. Joseph’s mother in Haiti bought them steamship tickets on the La France as a welcome present, but the line’s strict policy regarding children caused them to transfer their booking to the Titanic’s second class. On April 10 the Laroche family took the train from Paris to Cherbourg in order to board the brand new liner later that evening.
After the ship struck an iceberg, Joseph loaded his pregnant wife and children onto a lifeboat (very likely Lifeboat 14) and he went down with the ship. His body was never recovered.
Shortly before Christmas of that year, Juliette Laroche gave birth to their son, Joseph Laroche Jr.
Juliette never remarried.