The Long-Lost Story of Joseph Laroche, the Only Black Man on the ‘Titanic’

Laroche remains one of the most often-overlooked stories of the infamous ship.
The Laroche family shortly before departing on the 'Titanic.'
The Laroche family shortly before departing on the 'Titanic.' / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain (Laroche Family) // malerapaso/E+ via Getty Images (Background)

As the only English-speaking member of his immediate family, Joseph Laroche was the first among them to understand the horror that was about to unfold.

It was the middle of the night on April 14, 1912, and the hull of the luxury ocean liner Titanic had just been gouged by an iceberg. Soon, stewards began ordering passengers toward the lifeboats. Laroche, who had been relaxing in the ship’s smoking lounge, raced to his quarters. There, his wife Juliette and daughters Simonne and Louise were shaken and confused. They spoke French and had no way of realizing what was transpiring until Laroche explained it.

Quickly, Laroche stuffed the family’s valuables into his coat, then draped it over Juliette’s shoulders, knowing his spouse and their children were more likely to be placed on the boats and that she may need the money from their jewels.

His family was ushered into a boat, with Laroche bravely insisting he’d be seeing them all again soon. Juliette may have sensed that was unlikely—and indeed, it was. As the survivors looked on, the RMS Titanic began to split in half, and when it descended into the water, it took more than 1500 people with it. But while the stories to emerge from this disaster would be exhaustively chronicled, Laroche’s was not. The only confirmed Black man of the infamous ship, his story would go largely forgotten and untold for the next 80 years.

Toward a Better Life

Joseph Laroche was born in Cap-Haïtien, a port city in Haiti, on May 26, 1886. The Caribbean country had previously resisted Napoleon Bonaparte’s efforts to take over and earned sovereignty, though it would later be marked by political and economic tumult that resulted in a controversial United States occupation from 1915 to 1934.

The 'Titanic' is pictured
The 'Titanic' cuts through the water. / George Rinhart/GettyImages

Laroche’s family was among the more privileged in Haiti. His uncle, Cincinnatus Leconte, became president in 1911; Laroche’s parents had the financial means to send him to Beauvais, France, in 1901 to study engineering. While there, Laroche was introduced to the Lafargue family, including Juliette. At the insistence of Juliette’s father, Laroche completed his education before marrying Juliette in 1908. Soon, two girls were born: Simonne in 1909 and Louise in 1910.

Despite his education and multi-lingual abilities—he spoke English, French, and Creole—Laroche was soon faced with an ugly reality. Racism in France was endemic, and there were precious few job opportunities available. What few there were wouldn’t pay Laroche—or any Black man—what his engineering knowledge was truly worth. Making matters worse was the fact that young Louise had been born premature; the care she required meant that Laroche had a pile of medical bills.

Two events determined Laroche’s future. The first came when newly elected Haitian president Leconte—Laroche’s uncle—guaranteed him work back in Haiti. (Accounts vary as to whether it would be in engineering or as a math teacher.) Second, Juliette became pregnant with their third child. It was decided that the family should make their journey to Haiti before the pregnancy made it too difficult or dangerous to travel. If they waited until after Juliette gave birth, they’d have a newborn to contend with.

Laroche’s mother offered to pay her son’s way to Haiti via a new ship, the La France, which was due to depart April 20. But Laroche discovered a concerning detail: The La France would not allow children into the dining area to eat with their parents. Laroche, who wanted Simonne and Louise to remain close by, opted to exchange his first-class tickets for La France for second-class tickets on a new ship that had no such prohibitions.

The ship meant to deliver the Laroches to their new life was the Titanic.

Voyage Into the Unknown

The Titanic was scheduled to depart Cherbourg, France, on the evening of April 10, 1912. It would take five days to reach New York, at which point Laroche and his family would embark on a different vessel bound for Haiti. As the passengers boarded, a band played “La Marseillaise," the national anthem of France.

The 'Titanic' is pictured
A staircase leads to the restaurant on the 'Titanic.' / Krista Few/GettyImages

Despite the second-class status afforded by the tickets, the Titanic was so well-appointed that the Laroches were extremely comfortable. A roomy suite allowed for privacy and plenty of sleeping space, with multiple bunks and a pull-out sofa; the dining area was open to both first- and second-class passengers. A French family they met on the train to Cherbourg provided a welcome familiarity.

Read More Articles About the Titanic:


Whether the Laroches experienced blatant racism on board the ship is hard to discern; Laroche kept no extant writing or observations of his interactions with others while traveling. It is known that some crew members were openly hostile toward passengers with darker complexions, which later prompted Titanic owner White Star Line to issue a public apology.

What little we know of their social experience comes from Juliette, who wrote to her father from the ship. Juliette was fair-skinned, and though historians are not unanimous about her exact ethnicity, she was probably perceived as white. The letter, which was picked up during a stop in Queenstown, Ireland, on April 11, related that “people on board were very nice” and that some had given the children chocolates.

On Sunday, April 14, the family attended church services and later ate what would be their final meals together. That evening, Juliette and the girls retired to their suite while Laroche headed for the smoking lounge. It was there that Laroche began hearing news of a catastrophe—that the ship had collided with an iceberg and passengers needed to take immediate action.

Laroche raced back to Juliette and the kids, where Laroche explained in French what the announcements had revealed in English. Together, the four headed portside toward the lifeboats. It was around 1 a.m.

Laroche helped his wife and daughters climb into the boat. The ship had not brought enough rescue boats for all passengers. With just 20 of them available, men were a lower priority than women and children, especially if they weren’t a first-class passenger of means. Laroche could not follow his family into the lifeboat, though it’s possible he stepped into it just long enough to give a crying Louise some milk from a bottle.

At roughly 2:17 a.m., Juliette watched as the Titanic disappeared from view. Her husband was almost certainly dead, and there was no guarantee for her safety, either. For hours, survivors in the lifeboats waited, anxious to be rescued from the frigid weather; Juliette’s feet were growing dangerously cold. Finally, after six hours, the Carpathia appeared and gathered over 700 passengers, leading them away from what would become the most infamous maritime disaster in modern history.

Laroche Rediscovered

Without Laroche, there was little point in Juliette and her children continuing the journey to Haiti. After a stop in New York, where she and the girls got medical treatment, they returned to France, where another tragedy was about to unspool—World War I.

A newsboy is pictured
A newspaper boy carries word of the disaster. / Hulton Deutsch/GettyImages

The family struggled financially, though Juliette always managed to care for their three children. (Son Joseph Jr. was born in December 1912.) At the urging of others, she sued White Star Line, though it would take until 1918 to see the $22,119 the company finally offered by way of compensation (around half a million dollars today). Juliette used the funds to start a fabric-dyeing business.

As time went on, the family tragedy sunk further into the past. During Nazi Germany’s occupation of France, Juliette felt it was best for the three children that their late father’s race go unmentioned. The incident itself was also too painful for Juliette, who died in 1980, to recall: She rarely spoke of it. Her two daughters never married or had children, which some inferred to represent Juliette being fiercely protective of them.

The story of Laroche as the Titanic’s sole Black adult passenger was largely confined to fervent Titanic historians until 1995, when researcher Olivier Mendez interviewed Louise for the Titanic Historical Society and shed new light on her father. (Mendez, fluent in both English and French, allowed for the U.S.-based Society to hear Louise’s story in detail.) In June 2000, Ebony magazine ran a story on Laroche, which was likely the first time a national publication had profiled him.

That same year, Laroche’s story was also part of a Titanic exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. Actors strolled around the museum as both Laroche and Juliette, though the museum later pulled “Juliette” from the performances, as they were uncertain of her ethnicity and didn’t want to misrepresent it.

It was due to these efforts that Laroche’s legacy was not forgotten. On the surface, that story appears to be that of the Titanic’s lone Black man who climbed aboard hoping to escape the discrimination that prevented him from supporting his family. Had it not been for the color of skin, Laroche would have likely remained in France and lived to see his children grow.

While that’s certainly true, LaRoche’s story is also one of a man who calmly and selflessly guided his family to safety amidst a terror no one could have imagined possible. Not even the near-certainty of his looming death took him away from what had been his priority all along: the survival of his loved ones.