Losing Laroche: The Story of the Titanic’s Only Black Passenger

Friday, January 5, 2018: 4:30 PM
Maryland Suite C (Marriott Wardman Park)
Kellie Carter Jackson, Hunter College, City University of New York
This paper explores the history of the only black family onboard the Titanic. The story of Haitian Joseph Philippe Lemercier Laroche, his French wife Juliette Lafargue, and their descendants is largely unknown and troubles the racialized US Titanic narrative focused on elite white travelers. Laroche’ significance to the Titanic narrative is twofold. First, Laroche allows us to better understand the possibilities of black advancement in the Titanic moment. Laroche is a direct descendant of the first ruler of independent Haiti, Jean-Jacques Dessalines. He traveled from Haiti to France to be educated as an engineer and help develop Paris’s North-South train line. Secondly, Laroche also demonstrates the limitations of black advancement in a racially hostile world. Despite his pedigree and personal accomplishments, he struggled to find steady employment in France and was unable to provide for his growing family, prompting his to return to Haiti in 1912.

The paper recounts Laroche’s life story in order to probe ways in which African-Americans made sense of their lived existence during “the Nadir” of U.S. race relations. For many African Americans, the Titanic represented the ultimate symbol of white hubris. Indeed, in black memory and literature, the Titanic became a vehicle of jokes, roasts, and legends surrounding a possible black passenger. In oral tradition, African Americans developed a character named Shine (a derogatory name used for black men) who jumps into the water during the sinking of the ship. Shine mocks the wealthy passengers who found themselves in perilous waters. Attending to Laroche (the person) against the caricature (Shine) affords the opportunity to address black people who traveled with agency and contested white supremacy and its economic advantages. Laroche’s life story reveals the seemingly inescapable grasp of tragedy and demise that follow black people wherever they venture, even in their attempts to travel home.

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