Was a Black Man on the Titanic?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: The making of a legend named Shine, after the demise of a real person.

Joseph Laroche and his family; the Titanic

Wikimedia Commons; Central Press/Getty Images

Editor's note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these "amazing facts" are an homage.

Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 58: Who were the black passengers on the doomed Titanic voyage?

When the Titanic went down on April 15, 1912, African Americans mourned for the dead, but not believing they included any of their own. As the story went, Jim Crow had unwittingly prevented the taking of black lives in a year otherwise marred by more than 60 lynchings on shore. 

Preaching magnanimity, the Solid Rock Herald nevertheless made the point:

“While it can be safely calculated that no member of the colored race lost their lives in this awful catastrophe owing to certain conditions over which we have no control, nevertheless ‘one touch of nature makes the whole world kin,’ and our sympathy goes out to the bereaved friends and relatives of the unfortunates who went to meet their Maker.” (as reprinted in the Pittsburgh Courier, May 4, 1912)

Other black newspapers described it as an example of nature’s humbling of man—and the hubris of white human beings. E.J. Smith, captain of the Titanic, had 40 years of experience at sea, but “experience proved his undoing,” the Richmond Planet opined; “he became overconfident, and the largest and costliest steamship in the world now rolls at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean” (also reprinted in the Pittsburgh Courier). “What a lesson in the equality of man, as Prince and Peasant alike met death from the hand of nature,” the Chicago Defender philosophized in its editorial, “The Awakening,” on April 20, 1912. “The greatest achievements of the day are but tiny toys in comparison with God’s own handiwork.”

As the news fanned out, the versions that African Americans divined, informed by the forces of discrimination, decadence and disaster, gave rise with stunning immediacy to a series of two tall tales: the first about an actual person, the great boxer, Jack Johnson, and the second about a mythical character known only as “Shine,” supposedly the lone black passenger who miraculously survived by swimming halfway across the Atlantic. 

Johnson’s and Shine’s tall tales hit the streets of Harlem in the forms of the dozens and toasts and songs, and were wildly popular throughout the black community, almost like a most joyful ritual of racial revenge. What no one black at the time realized, however, was that in the Titanic’s fatal final hours, an honest-to-God fact about the black experience had been part of the ship’s fated voyage: It turns out that one lone dark passenger had, in fact, actually been there in the dark icy waters, tending to his family before the white man’s “ten million dollar floating palace [sank] to the bottom of the sea,” as the Philadelphia Tribune put it five days later, without anyone ever knowing that this brother had been on board. His name was there, however, right under readers’ noses as they pored over lists of the missing printed in every major newspaper in circulation: Joseph Laroche. It was a name that sounded French, but belonged to a black man who’d been looking forward to going home on this side of the Atlantic.

By then, his white wife and two daughters (with a third child on the way) had arrived with the rescued in New York City, unsure of what to do next: journey on to Haiti, the land of Laroche’s birth, or return to the only home they had ever known, France. It would take more than 80 years for their story to be made known to the world. When it came to Titanic’s lone black victim, in fact, legend long preceded fact.

Jack Johnson and the Titanic