Editor’s note: This article was originally published Dec. 2, 2013. 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
Assuming blacks had had no history with the Titanic, or in its sinking, African Americans did what they do best: they improvised one. After all, the sinking of the Titanic was the most sensationalized news story in a year that had also seen the Balkan states attack the Turkish empire, the Manchu dynasty in China fall and the election of Woodrow Wilson as United States president. “It was not only the multitude of victims that made the catastrophe so overwhelmingly sad,” the Washington Post said in its year-in-review on December 29, 1912, “but the character and importance of many of those who sank.”
Character and importance? Statements like this last one practically dared African Americans to insert themselves into the Titanic narrative. So, putting a black face on the absurd and unexpected consequences of Jim Crow laws, they claimed their own Jack Johnson. The most famous prize-fighter of the day, a black man who had clobbered “The Great White Hope” and been vilified for his three white wives, was supposed to have been on Titanic—and would have been, had the captain not spotted him at the door and barred him because he was black.
It didn’t matter that Johnson was actually in the U.S. when the Titanic set sail from Southampton, England, as Robert Weisbord chronicles in “Black American Perceptions of the Titanic Disaster” in the Winter 1994 edition of Journal of Popular Culture. Johnson fit the narrative black folks needed: He could have afforded the ticket, he was as famous as any other man on board, and he was black.
“Jack Johnson doesn’t have to fight to keep his name in the newspapers,” the Chicago Defender editorialized two bullets down from its Titanic news flash on April 20, 1912. “The reporters seem to be so eager for news that they chronicle every move he makes, private or otherwise. It must be great to be great.” Though still separate news stories that day, it didn’t take long for Jack Johnson and the Titanic to become one.
In fact, that very year Johnson found his way into a folk song made famous by the great bluesman Huddie William Ledbetter, better known as “Lead Belly.” He called it “Titanic,” and in his “Last Sessions,” recorded in New York City in 1948, he explained how he and Blind Lemon Jefferson used to sing it differently depending on the color of the audience. But to Lead Belly, it was—at least he wanted us to believe it was—“the true story,” and he located it in time by adding, “It was the first song I learned to play on a 12-string guitar, 1912.” Here are the “controversial” lyrics (as sung, minus the repeats):
Jack Johnson wanted to get on board,
Captain he says, “I ain’t haulin’ no coal!”
Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well! …
(Jack Johnson so glad he didn’t get on there.)
When he heard about that mighty shock,
Mighta seen the man turn the Eagle Rock.
Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well!
The key to Lead Belly’s legend was that it reinforced what many African Americans already felt: that even Jack Johnson—a fighter who, in 1912, represented the race like no other—had (or would have) been snubbed as just another piece of “coal,” so that he (and they) were justified in laughing last when the Titanic went down.
Shine and the Titanic
Perhaps even more popular was the figure of Shine, a legendary trickster troped on in signifying rituals such as the and toasts, running the gamut from the clean to the profane in black barbershops and clubs across America. “Shine,” as a name, may have started out as one of the many names white racists used to insult dark-complexioned black people, but in the legend that African Americans invented, he was a bad-ass hero. Shine wasn’t bounced like Jack Johnson from the Titanic’s passenger list like a piece of “coal,” but hired to shovel it way down in the ship’s boiler room.
Langston Hughes captured the oral tradition surrounding Shine in his piece for the Chicago Defender on July 18, 1953, noting that the Titanic was hot again with the release of a new Hollywood film (called Titanic, it starred Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck). In Hughes’ column, which he titled “When the Titanic Went Down Legend Says a Negro Was There,” he recalled how he’d been but a boy in Kansas in 1912 but “remember[ed] the old folks talking about it and how, ‘Thank God, there were no Negroes on that ship,’ since they drew the color line and the white folks wouldn’t let them ride, so they said.” But, Hughes quickly added, “folklore has it otherwise.
“For most of my adult life,” Hughes explained, “I have been hearing every now and then among the joke tellers, some long-rhymed version about the Negro who saved his life, not by jumping into a life-boat, with the women and children, but by swimming ashore.” And, “[l]ike all folk things,” Hughes wrote, “this story varies in the telling from place to place and person to person.” Which was why Hughes asked his readers to send him their versions. To melt the ice, Hughes printed what he’d already collected.
It was 1912 when the news got
That the great Titanic was going
Shine came running up on deck
and told the Captain, “Please,
The water in the boiler room is
up to my knees.”
Captain said, “You better take
your black self back down there!
I got a hundred fifty pumps to
keep the boiler room clear.”
When he was up to his neck in water, however …
Shine said, “Your words sound
happy and your words sound
But this is one time your word
Because I don’t like chicken and
I don’t like ham—
And I don’t believe your pumps
are worth a damn.”
Swimming away, Shine refused to turn back for even the most lucrative offers from those on board, including the captain, who, by then, knew he’d been wrong.
When all them white folks went
Shine was in Sugar Ray’s in Har-
lem drinking Seagrams Seven.
Hughes did a good job of giving the Shine toasts a bath for the Defender’s middle-class readers. For the authentic, canonical versions of the toast, check out the 10 that the folklorist Bruce Jackson collected in his 1974 book, Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me. These are the classic X-rated renditions of the toast, especially one from Ellis Tom, that Jackson recorded on March 25, 1966.
The basic arc of Shine’s escape is similar in the various versions of the toasts that Jackson collected, but with lots of play in who on board the Titanic is doing the begging for Shine to save them, and what they offer Shine in return, ranging from sex to marriage to fabulous wealth. In Mack’s version, recorded in Jefferson City on June 24, 1964, for example, we see an allusion by the captain to the founder of the Rockefeller dynasty:
Shine jumped in the water and commenced to swim,
four thousand millionaires watchin’ him.
Captain say, “Shine, Shine, save poor me,
I’ll make you richer than old John D.”
Shine turned around and took another notion.
Say, “Captain, your money’s counterfeit in this big-assed ocean.”
Thanks to scholars such as Roger Abrahams, Bruce Jackson, and my departed friend, Larry Neal, Shine will always continue to live—and swim—on, and the toasts to him, Neal wrote in his afterword to the 1968 Black Fire: An Anthology of Black Writing (co-edited with Amiri Baraka), are “part of the private mythology of Black America. [The] symbolism is direct and profound. Shine is US.”
Tracing the Shine legend for the Washington Post, Dana Hull noted in the Dec. 20, 1997 edition how its “smug satisfaction that the Titanic—a symbol of white European arrogance and affluence—sank in its maiden voyage” flowed from the “irony that African Americans were not allowed to make the crossing—thus sparing their lives.” It was a tension that was there from the beginning, and for years it remained—a legend, revised and repeated—until the next big Hollywood film was set to roll around. This time it would be a James Cameron blockbuster starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. While that version of Titanic was still in production, a new one about “the Negro” who really was there was about to be revealed.
Mademoiselle Louise Laroche had been an honorary member of the Titanic Historical Society since its founding in 1963, but it wasn’t until a young Frenchman named Edward Kamuda joined and convinced researcher Olivier Mendez to call that the story of her black father was told (Mendez first published it in the Titanic Commutator in 1995; it is updated here). By then in her mid-80s, Louise would have only three more years to live. In that time, another historian, Judith Geller, would reach out to add LaRoche’s story to her 1998 book, Titanic: Women and Children First. Both are invaluable.
Here is the gist: Joseph Laroche was born in Cap Haitian, Haiti, on May 26, 1886. A precocious student from a well-to-do family with a desire to study engineering, he journeyed to France at 15 with the Lord Bishop of Haiti. They settled in Beauvais, in Northern France. During a visit to one of the monsignor’s friends outside Paris, Laroche met and fell in love with Juliette Lafargue, the white daughter of a wine seller and widower in Villejuif who agreed to let them marry once Joseph graduated.
Joseph and Juliette wed in March 1908. The harder part was finding work. “Although France is a pretty country with beautiful scenery, marvelous cities and nice people,” Mendez wrote, “racial prejudice at that time could prevent someone from employing a young dark-skinned man. Joseph did find work, but his employers made excuses that he was young and inexperienced and paid him poorly.”
Children followed: a daughter, Simonne, in February 1909 and Louise, premature and sickly, in July 1910. To provide for his growing family, Joseph resolved to return to Haiti, where, according to Geller, his uncle had become president (Geller doesn’t name him, but others suggest it was Dessalines M. Cincinnatus Leconte). When the Laroches discovered a third child was on the way in March 1912, they sped up their plans.
Joseph’s mother in Haiti treated them to the tickets. They were supposed to be on the ship La France, scheduled to set sail for Le Havre on April 20, but when they found out about its family-unfriendly policies (children couldn’t dine with their parents), they exchanged their tickets for second-class tickets on the RMS Titanic, a British vessel due to pick up passengers in Cherbourg, France, on April 10.
To get there (Titanic was too big to dock), the Laroches, with 270 other passengers, took the ship Nomadic out to it at Passe de l’Ouest. “If you could see this monster, our tender looked like a fly compared to her,” Juliette wrote her father the next day. “The arrangements could not be more comfortable. We have two bunks in our cabin, and the two babies sleep on a sofa that converts into a bed. One is at the head, the other at the bottom.”
That didn’t mean Titanic was discrimination-free, Geller writes. One woman on board even confused the Laroche children for Japanese. Nevertheless, Juliette presented a sunny face to her father. “The sea is very smooth, the weather is wonderful. If you could see how big this ship is! One can hardly find the way back to one’s cabin in the number of corridors.”
All that changed, however, when Titanic crashed into an Atlantic iceberg on the night of April 14. In the panic, Mendez writes, “Joseph put everything valuable, money and jewels in his pockets. Unable to understand, Juliette let Joseph, who spoke English fluently, lead her to the lifeboats.”
There were only 16 lifeboats aboard Titanic, so while Laroche ensured his wife and children made it onto No. 10, according to Geller (Richard Davenport-Hines has it as No. 14 in his 2012 book, Voyagers of the Titanic: Passengers, Sailors, Shipbuilders, Aristocrats, and the Worlds They Came from), Joseph remained behind with the men, never to be seen again.
His family was rescued by the Caparthia (a fact noted in the New York Times coverage on April 28, 1912), where, Geller notes, Juliette resorted to using dinner napkins for the girls’ diapers. Arriving in New York City on April 18, they were taken to St. Vincent’s Hospital, but while the staff there could warm the Laroches’ feet, they could not mend their hearts. Choosing against continuing on to Haiti, Juliette clung to what she knew, and, overcoming what I am sure was a terrible fear of sailing again, took her girls back to France, aboard the Chicago, arriving in May 1912. That December, Juliette gave birth to her and her late husband’s third child, a son, whom she named Joseph Jr.
As World War I swept over France, Juliette’s father was no longer able to support the family on his wine business alone, so, heeding his advice, Juliette sued the White Star Line and in 1918 received a settlement of 150,000 francs, enough to open a small cloth-and-crafts business in the house. Two years later, Joseph’s mother visited from Haiti, Mendez writes, but apparently was so upset to discover her grandchildren were decidedly French, she departed, never to see them again.
The world may have learned Joseph Laroche’s story sooner, but in 1932 Juliette refused an interviewer’s request. Her two girls never married. Of the three survivors, Simonne died first, in 1973. Juliette, by then paralyzed on one side, lived another seven years. Her grave, for posterity, says, “Juliette Laroche 1889-1980, wife of Joseph Laroche, lost at sea on RMS Titanic, April 15th 1912.” In 1998, Louise followed them, the last French survivor of Titanic. Joseph Jr., shielded in his mother’s womb during the foundering, married in 1945, and he and his wife, Claudine, had three children before he died in 1987.
The facts were there all along, but did not spread overseas until the Titanic Historical Society published Mendez’s account of Louise Laroche’s story in 1995 (Mendez currently edits Latitude 41, the journal of the Association Française du Titanic), followed by Geller’s history three years later. Not long after, a massive Titanic exhibit launched at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, which sparked a June 2000 article in Ebony magazine by Zondra Hughes, titled “What Happened to the Only Black Family on the Titanic?”
One woman reading it in a California salon was startled to see the resemblance between Joseph Laroche, in a 1910 picture with his wife and children, and her own husband, Robert Richard. Richard’s daughter, Marjorie Alberts, set out on her own genealogical search. Along the way, she learned the identity of Joseph’s father (her ancestor, too), Henri Laroche, a cobbler in Haiti. “For me, the real love story is between Joseph and Juliette,” Alberts’ cousin, Christine LeBrun, told Dawn Turner Trice of the Chicago Tribune in the April 9, 2012 edition. By the centennial of the Titanic disaster in 2012, there was a book of historical fiction based on Laroche’s life, an opera, a play, even talk of a screenplay.
“It is strange 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,” especially given “the keenness of the passengers and crew to take pot shots at other ethnic groups,” Geller writes. Now, thanks to historians like her, it’s out there now, and black Americans are embracing their Haitian brother.
When the Titanic sank in 1912, African Americans had no facts of their own, so they composed legends to signify on the ironies and injustices of Jim Crow having turned them away. In France, discrimination drove 25-year-old Joseph Laroche toward the Titanic. At times, the facts of his life are so powerful they feel like legend. Yet instead of immortalizing a boiler room trickster or a black boxer denied, they remind us of what was so easily lost in translation: that, in icy waters in middle night, black and white men suffered alike.
As always, you can find more “Amazing Facts About the Negro” on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.