Marlie Alberts said she is a descendant of the Haitian-born, French-educated black man, Joseph Laroche, whose maiden voyage on the Titanic is well-documented but remains obscure to the general public. Laroche was traveling with his pregnant wife, Juliette Lafargue, and their two young daughters, Simonne and Louise. His wife and children survived the Titanic disaster, but Laroche did not. His body was never found.
Alberts said the true love story between her interracial ancestors on the doomed luxury liner would make for a thrilling and romantic fact-based drama that would restore her family’s rightful place in history and raise awareness about the plight in Haiti today — two missions she is committed to.
The Haitian-American mother has turned her literary research into a fact-based screenplay and is preparing to shop it to TV networks as a three-part miniseries with all the earmarks of a ratings winner based on the Titanic’s popularity in films, plays, art and song.
Alberts, who is also an actress, said, “I want everybody to know that the Titanic was going to Haiti, and there was a black man on board who wasn’t a slave or waiter or servant.”
Last year the Chicago Tribune interviewed Alberts’ cousin, Christine LeBrun, who explained that in August of 2000, her uncle’s wife was in a beauty salon looking through the June issue of Ebony magazine when she came across the article, “What happened to the Only Black Family on the Titanic.” In the article she saw a photo of Laroche and said, “Oh, my gosh, that man looks just like my husband!”
The April 10, 2012, Tribune reported, “LeBrun’s aunt took the magazine home and showed Laroche’s photograph to her husband, Robert Richard. He wasn’t certain whether the picture looked like him, but he did recognize the last name. He said, ‘My real last name was supposed to be Laroche, but because my father never married my mother, we never took his name.’”
That’s when Richard, who is from Haiti, called his daughter Marlie Alberts, who did her own investigation and learned that Laroche is her seventh great-grandfather’s nephew in the line of their family tree. She said she also discovered Laroche was the nephew of the 21st president of Haiti, Cinninatus LeConte, who was the great-grandson of the first emperor of Haiti, which is another reason for her telling the story.
Titanic historian Judith Geller, author of “Titanic: Women and Children First,” was quoted in the June 2000 Ebony article as saying, “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.”
Now that the truth is out, Alberts said she is delighted that more people are coming to know about her ancestor who grew up in a well-to-do Haitian family and was returning home with his new family due to a lack of employment.
The Ebony article quoted the renowned Titanic historian as saying, “It was a great disappointment to him that having earned his engineering degree in France he could not find employment there. No matter how qualified he was, the blackness of his skin kept him from securing a position that paid his worth.”
Official recognition also came from the Titanic Historical Society, which chronicled the life of Laroche, born May 26, 1886, in the northern part of Haiti called Cap-Haïtien.
The Titanic Historical Society said in part, “The boy grew up in the city and being a good pupil, in 1901 at the age of 15, Joseph decided that he wanted to study engineering. There was no school for such in Haiti so he went to France traveling with a teacher, Monseigneur Kersuzan, the Lord Bishop of Haiti.
“The young man settled in Beauvais, where the engineering school was located and shared quarters with the Monseigneur. He had lessons in Beauvais and Lille, and being a serious pupil, his marks were good and Joseph was a promising student. Monseigneur Kersuzan planned to visit a friend who lived near Paris; the young student promptly accepted his invitation to accompany him. Monsieur Lafargue, a wine seller lived in Villejuif. His daughter, Juliette was born October 20, 1889. Madame Lafargue died early at age 40 a few years before. Joseph and Juliette soon became friends, fell in love and decided to marry.
“Joseph graduated from school and got his certificate. In March 1908 they were married at the Lafargue home. It was a special event; the Lafargues were upper middle class and marrying an only daughter was a very serious matter for the family. When Joseph graduated he expected to find employment as an engineer, [and] there were opportunities in Paris for someone with his education, however, there was a problem he had not thought of. Although France is a pretty country with beautiful scenery, marvelous cities and nice people, 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.
“A year later the young couple celebrated the birth of their first daughter, Simonne, on Feb. 19, 1909. On July 2, 1910, Louise was born, she was premature and frail, suffering from many medical problems in her first years. Joseph had to find a better paying job to support his children who were very important to him. In 1911 he decided to return to Haiti where there surely was a need for qualified young engineers.
"The country was far from modern, there would be great opportunities and his family could have a better standard of living. He wasn’t sure if Juliette would accept leaving behind her family, friends and a familiar country to move where she had never been before. Literally at the other end of the world, where things would be so different. They talked the matter over and she finally accepted. Travel to Haiti was planned for the next year.”
According to reports, Laroche’s mother had sent the family first-class tickets to travel on a French liner. But before its departure, the Laroches discovered there would be a seating and dining problem for the interracial family. Out of concern for their youngest daughter, who was sickly, they traded their tickets for second-class tickets on the Titanic.
It was April 10, 1912, when the Laroche family boarded the R.M.S Titanic at Cherbourg, France. As a Royal Mail Ship, the largest passenger liner of its time was also responsible for delivering mail for the British postal service. When the Laroche family stepped on the British luxury liner some passengers were reportedly less than happy with their company and made derogatory comments to Laroche, who spoke fluent French and English.
In a letter written by his wife, Juliette, to her father, dated April 11, 1912, she described the family’s quarters, writing, “The arrangements could not be more comfortable ... We have two bunks in our cabin, the two babies sleep on a sofa that converts into a bed.” Near the end of her letter, she wrote, “The sea is very smooth, the weather is wonderful.”
But smooth sailing took a turn for the worst on April 14. Late that evening, around 11:40 p.m., while Laroche was in the smoking parlor with other gentlemen traveling second class, they suddenly felt the ship hit an iceberg! He hurried back to his room to check on his wife and young daughters who were fine. Minutes later, a steward came to their cabin and told the family to put on life jackets — the Titanic had suffered an accident. When it was confirmed that the ship had actually started to sink, Laroche reportedly placed the family’s money and valuables in a coat and put the coat around his wife’s shoulders.
Laroche, 26, did not think of himself first, but tried to calm his wife and children amid a growing panic on a sinking ship. Juliette, who spoke no English and was confused by all of the commotion, just followed her husband as the steward led them through the rushing crowds to abandon the ship.
Laroche was able to place his family in a lifeboat — they staring at him, he staring at them — as everyone was clinging desperately to hope. The only black man on the Titanic stayed behind, willingly helping other women and children to safety. There is no record of how many passengers he may have aided. His final words to his family was that he would meet them in New York. His distressed wife and children were eventually picked up by the Cunard Line steamship Carpathia. They never saw Laroche again.
The French-educated engineer from Haiti was listed among the 1,502 victims of the Titanic in the North Atlantic Ocean between April 14-15, 1912. Alberts, the administrator of the Laroche legacy, said, “My ancestor, Joseph Philippe Lemercier Laroche, did not survive but his wife and two daughters did. They returned, not to Haiti as planned but, back to Paris, France, where later that year Juliette LaRoche gave birth to her son Joseph Jr.”
According to reports, the surviving family lived in poverty with Juliette’s father until she won a settlement from the Titanic tragedy.
Alberts said she is working with a few people to produce her script as a made-for-TV miniseries, which will capture the love, legacy and the lasting impression that Joseph Laroche made on his ancestors as being a man ahead of his time with a message for all humanity.
“This story is about family and a bloodline that never dies. It’s about the natural choices in life that bond who we are as belonging to humanity,”she said. “It represents who we are as a people — our greed for power, wealth, status, and the desire for freedom to pursue our dream for happiness.
“The Haitian community needs to be uplifted with more education of their heritage. Once you understand the problems that fell on Haiti you can grow and learn from the past. Haiti was the gem of the Caribbean Islands — and still is. I want to educate the world in general — to discover who their ancestors’ were — to find those little gems in life, that will encourage you to push forward — to always have hope, even in the worst moments in life, where there is no hope, and to never give up fighting for courage — to overcome all obstacles in Life.”
Alberts, who faces her own obstacles as a mother raising an 11-year-old daughter, novice screenwriter, first-time executive producer, actress and dancer living in Los Angeles, is working up a business profile to help secure funds for the development of her miniseries. She and her business partner, Marie Sylvia Cothia, are currently establishing a new company, MSC-LaRoche Entertainment, as a limited liability corporation.
Alberts said she believes shedding light on the only black man on the Titanic will enlighten the public and renew interest in the British passenger liner disaster on the eve of its 101st Anniversary on April 12. For further information, visit www.TitanicOnlyBlackFamily.com.
Leie Laroche, another family descendent, developed the website for Alberts.