The sinking of the Titanic was one of the most tragic events in history. On the night of April 14, 1912, at approximately 11:40 p.m., the ship that was supposed to be unsinkable struck an iceberg. A few hours later, at 2:20 a.m. on April 15, this great luxury ship sank in the cold, dark waters of the North Atlantic. The Titanic had about 2,200 passengers and crew. It carried only 20 lifeboats. The liner Carpathia rescued 706 survivors. There were more than 1,500 passengers and crew lost in the disaster.
The story of the Titanic has been recorded in numerous books, articles and films. The blockbuster movie "Titanic," starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, captured the imaginations of millions as it described the horror of the sinking ship. However, in all of the films produced about the Titanic, none of them included the story of the black family traveling aboard the ship in second class.
The story of the Joseph Laroche family was lost for many years until a researcher named Olivier Mendez discovered that they were on the ship. The discovery was further brought to light with an exhibit in a Chicago museum and an article with photos of the family in the 2000 issue of Ebony magazine.
Joseph Philippe Lemercier Laroche was born on May 26, 1886, in Cap Haitien, Haiti. He had studied at a young age to become an engineer in France. He was born into a powerful family. His uncle, Dessalines Leconte, was the president of Haiti. Laroche could not find work in France as an engineer due to the color of his skin. So he decided to return to Haiti to find employment in order to support his family.
At the time of the voyage his wife, Juliette, was pregnant with their third child.
Joseph had originally purchased tickets for the trip home on the liner LaFrance. Due to the strict rules regarding children on that ship, he decided to get his money back and instead bought tickets for the Titanic. The Laroches sailed on the Titanic with their two daughters, Simonne Marie, age 3, and Louise, age 1.
Traveling second class on the Titanic was not a terrible experience. Author Judith B. Geller, in a book called "Titanic: Women and Children First," wrote: "Traveling second class on the Titanic was, even by the most exacting standards, a comfortable, luxurious way to cross the Atlantic. Talk among frequent travelers was that second class on this White Star leviathan rivaled first class on other vessels. Second class was entered through vibrant stained-glass doors. The golden-oak-paneled vestibule, one of the ship's most outstanding features, was just a taste of the pleasures to come."
When the ship began to sink, Joseph put his wife and two daughters in one of the rescue boats. He did not survive. He went down with the ship. His wife returned to France and lived with her father. She gave birth to a son and named him after his father -- Joseph Jr. He later married a woman named Claudine. They had several children.
Louise and Simonne Marie never married. Their mother was overprotective; she kept them close to her and did not allow any interaction with others outside of the immediate family. Simonne Marie died in 1973, Juliette died in 1980 and Louise died in 1998.
Geller wrote: "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."
Her book contains photos of the Laroche family. One of the photos shows Juliette with her daughters at a local hospital. The terror of the Titanic disaster remained with Juliette for many years and she would not grant interviews.
The following appeared on her tombstone: "Juliette Laroche, 1889-1980, wife of Joseph Laroche, lost at sea on RMS Titanic, April 15th, 1912."
Eva M. Doyle is a columnist for the Buffalo Criterion newspaper, where this article originally appeared. It is the second of a four-part series.