Joseph Laroche, The Only Black Passenger Aboard The Ill-Fated Titanic

Walter Joseph Philippe Lemercier Laroche, born in Haiti on May 26, 1886, was the nephew of Cincinnatus Leconte, who had served as president of the country. At the age of 15, he left Haiti to attend school in France. There, he met Juliette Lafargue, the daughter of a wine seller. They fell in love and married in March 1908. But life in France was not idyllic.

Racial prejudice cast shadows upon Joseph’s career prospects. Meager paychecks barely sustained their growing family. In 1911, with a second daughter in tow, Joseph resolved to seek better opportunities in his homeland of Haiti.

Joseph’s mother gifted them first-class tickets to travel aboard the SS France, a French steamship. However, due to the company’s policy of separating children from their parents during meals, Joseph exchanged their tickets for second-class passage on the RMS Titanic. A marvel of engineering deemed unsinkable. , envisioning a luxurious voyage. Fate had other plans.

On April 10, 1912, the Laroche family stepped aboard the Titanic. As the band played “La Marseillaise” (the national anthem of France), Joseph stood out—an elegant Haitian engineer among the 2,000 souls on that grand ship. They befriended other French passengers, reveled in concerts, and marveled at the ship’s luxury. Juliette, pregnant with their third child, wrote letters home, describing their comfortable cabin and the vastness of the sea.

Then, in the early hours of April 15, disaster struck. A steward urged them to don life jackets. An iceberg had pierced the Titanic’s hull. Joseph, pockets laden with valuables, guided Juliette and the children to the lifeboats. The Titanic carried 20 lifeboats, which could accommodate a total of 1,178 people. These lifeboats were situated on the top deck, although the original design allowed for 32 lifeboats. However, this number was reduced to 20 to avoid cluttering the deck. Despite the insufficient number of lifeboats, the ship complied with the maritime safety regulations of its time.

Panic swirled around them. Juliette was on a lifeboat next to their youngest daughter, Simonne. From the lifeboat, Juliette glimpsed Joseph. His voice echoed above the panic of the chaos: “See you soon, darling. There will be space for everyone. Take care of our girls.” Joseph, like so many others, remained aboard the sinking ship. His body was never found.

Juliette and her daughters survived, returning to France as widows. She named her newborn son Joseph, a tribute to the man who sacrificed his life for theirs. Joseph Laroche, the only black passenger aboard the Titanic, became a footnote in Titanic lore, overshadowed by the ship’s tragic fate.