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From Walter Lord’s 1955 bestseller “A Night to Remember” to James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster, the story of the ill-fated RMS Titanic has captured the fascination of millions since the tragic incident claimed the lives of nearly 1,500 passengers in 1912.
We all know this story well; a steamship renowned for her speed and luxury ignored ice warnings on her maiden voyage and struck an iceberg — sending socialites, refugees and a real-life Jack Dawson to early graves.
While Titanic’s sinking has become one of the most infamous shipwrecks of all time, the story of the only Black family aboard has largely been excluded from history.
Joseph Philippe Lemercier Laroche, 25, was a Haitian native traveling as a second class passenger on Titanic. He accompanied his pregnant wife and their two daughters, Simonne and Louise, on the ship’s maiden voyage.
Born into a prosperous and powerful family on May 26, 1886 in Cap-Haitien, Haiti, Joseph was the nephew of Haitian president Dessalines M. Cincinnatus Leconte.
As a child, he took an interest in engineering and was sent to study in France at the age of 15. While visiting a tiny French village several years later, he met Juliette Lafargue, his future wife. After earning an engineering degree, he turned to the Parisian job market.
Joseph was a skilled professional with a degree. He was fluent in English, French and Creole. He came from an affluent family who paid for his education. But he was still a Black man living in 20th century Europe. Racial prejudice and discrimination created an insurmountable barrier that left him struggling to find adequate work. With a growing family and little opportunity for him to provide for them in France, Joseph and Juliette decided to return to Haiti in 1912.
Overjoyed with the news of the family’s return, Joseph’s mother bought them first class tickets on the French liner La France as a reunion gift. However, due to conflicting accommodations that would’ve left the young parents without direct access to their children, the Laroches exchanged the tickets for second-class reservations on the new White Star Liner RMS Titanic.
Neither Joseph nor Juliette could possibly have anticipated the tragic complications of this decision.
The Laroches boarded Titanic on April 10, 1912 at Cherbourg. Over the next 3 days, they likely enjoyed several amenities afforded to second-class passengers — luxurious staterooms, a dining saloon, library and three outdoor promenade decks. In a letter addressed to her father and sent from Titanic’s final stop of Queenstown (now Cobh) Ireland, Juliette Laroche wrote of Titanic’s luxury and friendly fellow travelers: