The Story of Joseph Phillipe Lemercier Laroche: The only Black Man of African Ancestry Onboard The R.M.S Titanic

Millions of people have either seen or read the story of the R.M.S Titanic. But how many of us have read about Joseph Phillipe Lemercier Laroche, a Haitian engineer – the only black man of African ancestry that was onboard the R.M.S Titanic.

The famous 1997 Titanic movie that starred leading casts Kate Elizabeth Winslet and Leonardo Wilhelm DiCaprio didn’t capture the life of Joseph Phillipe Lemercier Laroche on the R.M.S Titanic ship but rather focused on two young lovers ‘Jack and Rose’. The R.M.S Titanic had only 2 people of colour out of 1,300 passengers onboard – that raised the question of racial discrimination a on-board the Titanic.

Photo of 25-year-old Joseph Laroche

Joseph Phillipe Lemercier Laroche, a Haitian engineer, was born on May 26, 1889, in Cap Haitien, Haiti. Joseph Phillipe Lemercier Laroche was the son of a white French army captain and a Haitian woman who was a descendant of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the first ruler of independent Haiti. His uncle was the president of Haiti from 1911 to 1912. As a kid, Joseph Phillipe Lemercier Laroche lived a life every kid could dream of. He was fortunate to live among the privileged upper-class Haitians at that time. At age 15, Joseph Phillipe Lemercier Laroche moved to Beauvais, France with Monsignor Kersuzan, his teacher, the Lord Bishop of Haiti, to continue his engineering studies and training.

At the age of 18, In Beauvais, France, he received a certificate in engineering in 1907. At age 19, Joseph Phillipe Lemercier Laroche met his wife Juliette Marie Louise Lafargue. The two got married in 1908 and had two daughters in the subsequent years: Simonne Laroche, born on February 19, 1909, and Marie Louise Laroche, born on July 2, 1910. In France, Joseph Phillipe Lemercier Laroche started working at the Paris Metro Line but had difficulties in finding a better pay job due to racial discrimination in France at the time. Joseph Phillipe Lemercier Laroche couldn’t get a permanent job either a job with better pay, this forced him to reside in his father-in-law’s home.

Joseph Phillipe Lemercier Laroche, his wife Juliette Marie Louise Lafargue, and his two daughters Simonne Laroche and Marie Louise Laroche

The situation in France became worse for Joseph and his family when his second daughter Mariè Louise Laroche became seriously ill, and they were expecting a third child. This situation had a major blow on their income as they couldn’t be held on to the struggles any longer. Joseph Phillipe Lemercier Laroche decided to return to his family in Haiti where as a child he didn’t experience such hardship he had in France.

Laroche’s mother called for his return. His mother bought first-class tickets for Laroche and his wife and kids to onboard the La France ship. But it didn’t happen because there was a policy called ‘ocean liner’ which banned children to dine with their parents in the dining room. This unfortunate event led Laroche, who wanted to be able to dine with his adorable daughters to exchanged his first-class La France tickets for the second class tickets on the R.M.S Titanic; that’s how Joseph Phillipe Lemercier Laroche, a black man of Africa origin ended up in the Titanic ship and became the only black man onboard the Titanic.

What happened next?

On April 10, 1912, Joseph Phillipe Lemercier Laroche, his wife Juliette Marie Louise Lafargue, and two daughters, Simonne Laroche and Marie Louise Laroche aboard the R.M.S Titanic. Inside the R.M.S Titanic, Laroche and his family experienced good and bad. They had great experiences, on the other hand, they experienced first-hand racism. The white people were throwing insults at Laroche and his family for their interracial marriage. The family were subjected to racial insults by white passengers on-board the Titanic and also crew members.

In the early morning of April 15, the R.M.S Titanic sank after hitting a giant iceberg. What could have been a return to home for Laroche and his family, ended up been a tragedy for Joseph Phillipe Lemercier Laroche and an unforgotten tragedy for his wife and children Juliette Marie Louise Lafargue. According to reports, Joseph Phillipe Lemercier Laroche took his wife and children up to the boat deck. He took off the coat he had worn and wrapped it around his wife, and his last words to her were: “Here, take this, you are going to need it. I’ll get another boat. God be with you. I’ll see you in New York.”

Juliette Marie Louise Lafargue, wife of Joseph Phillipe Lemercier Laroche (picture by Encyclopedia Titanica)

His wife, Juliette Laroche, in 1912 interview in the French newspaper Le Matinher, which she recalled her last glimpse of her husband:

“There, on the bridge, in the midst of the crush, I caught a glimpse of my husband…I hardly had time to shout a final farewell to my husband. I heard his voice, above the hubbub, shouting to me:
”I’ll see you soon, my darling! … There’ll be room for everyone, go with the lifeboats, … Look after our little girls … See you soon!”

Joseph Phillipe Lemercier Laroche and hundreds of others died in the sinking of the R.M.S Titanic. His body was never recovered. His wife Juliette Marie Louise Lafargue returned to Paris with her two daughters, Simonne Laroche and Marie Louise Laroche. Juliette gave birth to their third child, Joseph Lemercier Laroche on December 17, 1912, named after Joseph Phillipe Lemercier Laroche.

Author: Abu Bakarr Jalloh

Abu Bakarr Jalloh is a Sierra Leonean content writer, author, Neo Pan-African and founder of The African Dream, an online platform for inspiring, positive and compelling African stories. Contact: WhatsApp: +23276211583

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