By Sabrina L. Miller Tribune Staff Writer February 20, 2000
Joseph Laroche, a Haitian-born, French-educated engineer, had no intention of traveling on the Titanic when he and his family left France in 1912. Unable to find work in France because he was black -- and having discovered that his wife was pregnant with their third child -- Laroche decided to return to his native Haiti with first-class tickets aboard the French liner France. But just before departure, he learned that the ship did not allow children to dine with their parents.
As a result, Laroche, his wife Juliette, who was white, and their two young daughters quickly transferred to the Titanic, their first-class France tickets equivalent to second-class tickets aboard the British luxury liner. The story of the only blacks on board the Titanic is being highlighted in the Titanic exhibit that opened Friday at the Museum of Science and Industry.
They boarded the Titanic at Cherbourg, outside Paris, and for three days, the family enjoyed the ship's splendor. At a 9 p.m. seating April 14, the family dined together for the last time. Joseph Laroche retired to the smoking parlor with other men in second class. Juliette Laroche and their daughters, 3-year-old Simonne and 1-year-old Louise, returned to their suite.
Later that evening, Joseph Laroche felt the collision, ran back to his room and awoke his wife and daughters. As the mother and children were placed in a lifeboat on that frigid evening, Joseph Laroche draped his coat, stuffed with money and family valuables, across his wife's shoulders. "You will need it," he told Juliette Laroche, 22. "I will see you in New York. I must take another raft. God be with you."
Those were the last words Joseph Laroche spoke to his wife. The coat was stolen, but Juliette Laroche and the girls survived. Joseph Laroche, 26, the only black man aboard the ship, was one of 166 second-class passengers who died.
The Laroches weren't featured in the popular 1997 film "Titanic," but their place in this historic episode is being told in detail -- perhaps for the first time -- at the exhibit.
Two of the museum's "program interpreters," are portraying the couple, giving patrons an interactive history lesson about the Laroches throughout the exhibit's seven-month run. Other passengers being portrayed include socialite Margaret "Molly" Brown and Capt. Edward Smith.
"We found out through research that there was one black family on board," said Cheryl McDonald, manager of program interpretation. "In an attempt to show diversity, which the museum feels very strongly about, we decided that we wanted to show this."
"We're very excited about being the first to tell the story of the Laroches in an exhibition," added McDonald, who handpicked the program interpreters who portray them. "It's an important story and has just been a huge topic of conversation around the museum."
Judith Geller, author of "Titanic: Women and Children First," said the Laroche story is one of the more interesting among those from the doomed ship, which sank April 15. "It is strange," she writes in her book, "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."
Many attending a media preview of the exhibit Wednesday evening were startled by the sight of a well-dressed black couple strolling about in early 1900s style: the woman in a spectacular, floor-length red silk dress with a full floral skirt and matching handbag; the man in a natty three-piece suit, complete with a waist-chain pocket watch.
The Laroches -- played by Gregory Armstrong and Meredith Browder -- provide a history lesson about their lives and the fateful journey that would separate them forever. "I am Joseph Laroche," begins Armstrong in a booming baritone. "I was born in Cap-Haitien, Haiti. I traveled to France to study engineering when I was 15."
Browder, as Madame Laroche, picks up the story, "My father was a widower who owned a wine store. I met my husband when I was 15, but my father would not allow me to marry him until he received his degree. We married in March 1908."
They never break character. Juliette Laroche, who grew up in a prominent, privileged family, was accustomed to traveling first class and complained bitterly about the lack of adequate heating in the Titanic's second-class rooms; Joseph Laroche regrets that he "was unable to find fair wages" in France as an engineer, which forced the couple's hasty trip to Haiti, where his family was quite prosperous. Joseph Laroche worked on the building of one of the early Metro lines in Paris.
"We actually had not planned to leave France until 1913, but my wife's delicate condition made it necessary for us to leave early, while it was still safe for her to travel," said Armstrong as Laroche.
Armstrong and Browder, Chicagoans who are both black, said they were thrilled to have the opportunity to educate themselves, as well as the public, about this little-known story. French researcher Olivier Mendez and the Massachusetts-based Titanic Historical Society are credited with first uncovering the information.
Cheryl Colbert, who attended the exhibit preview, said, "I had no idea there were people of color aboard the Titanic in any capacity. But it shows you that people of color are a part of everyone's history." Although author and historian Geller said Juliette Laroche was white, Browder said she didn't think her portrayal was historically inaccurate. "I've seen her picture, I've seen her features," Browder said. "She definitely looks like she could have been mixed to me." Either way, the presence of the Laroches in the museum's exhibit is part of what makes it special, observers said.
"I don't know why it hasn't gotten more attention. I find it a very unique story," said Geller, who attended Wednesday night's preview. "There are people within the Titanic community who have always known the story, but somehow it just never got out."
The Laroches, by survivor accounts, were a charming couple who socialized easily with other passengers. A mention of the couple's mixed-race daughters in a letter by passenger Kate Buss reads, "There are two of the finest little Jap(anese) baby girls, about three or four years old, who look just like dolls running about."
Transported on the rescue ship Carpathia, Juliette Laroche, whose feet were frozen, and her daughters arrived in New York, where they were treated at St. Vincent's Hospital. She later returned to France, where Joseph Lemercier Laroche was born on Dec. 17, 1912.
Juliette Laroche never remarried and never spoke of the disaster except in letters to the Titanic Historical Society, said co-founder Karen Kamuda. Juliette Laroche died in 1980. Her daughters never married.
The younger Joseph Laroche, who married and had three children, died in 1987.
By Sabrina L. Miller Tribune Staff Writer February 20, 2000