In preparing his 1997 movie “Titanic” for 3-D, James Cameron reportedly reshot a scene because an astronomer told him that the position of the stars was wrong in the original movie.
Christine LeBrun, 35, of Palatine, said there’s another historical inaccuracy in Cameron’s original blockbuster that she wishes he’d corrected for the new “Titanic 3D”: He didn’t include any mention of Joseph Laroche, a Haitian-born, French-educated engineer traveling with his family who is believed to be the only black man among the passengers on the Titanic.
The 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking is April 15, and LeBrun says that despite the many accounts about the ill-fated cruise liner, very few have featured Laroche.
How she came to know about her ancestor is a story that begins in a hair salon in 2000.
“About 12 years ago, my uncle Robert’s wife was in a beauty salon looking through (an Ebony) magazine,” said LeBrun, an alumni relations director for a Catholic high school. “She came across a photo and said, ‘Oh, my gosh, that man looks just like my husband.’”
The photograph accompanied an article about an exhibit on the Titanic that had opened at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry and featured Laroche, 26, his pregnant wife, Juliette, 22, and their two daughters. The family was leaving France and moving to Haiti because Laroche couldn’t find work in his profession.
Laroche’s mother had sent the family first-class tickets to travel on the French liner France. But just before departure, the Laroches learned that the ship wouldn’t allow them to dine with their children. Out of concern about the younger daughter, who was sickly, they traded their tickets for second-class tickets on the Titanic.
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,’” LeBrun said. “He called (his daughter) and told her he might be related to Joseph and she started to do research.”
LeBrun said her cousin Marjorie Alberts, who lives in California, learned that Laroche grew up in a well-to-do Haitian family. When he was 14, his parents sent him to France to study engineering. There he met Juliette, who was white and whose father owned a winery.
“It’s puzzling, considering the times, that her father did not take issue with his daughter dating a black man,” LeBrun said. “They eventually married and gave birth to Simonne in 1909. She was fine, and it was a normal birth. But when they gave birth to Louise in 1910, she was premature and had lots of problems.
“Joseph (Laroche) at that point had been trying to find work in France, but nobody would give him work because he was black. Coming from a position of privilege in Haiti, he wasn’t used to this and he decided to move his family to Haiti, where his uncle was the president and his job prospects would be much better.”
The family boarded the Titanic on the evening of April 10, 1912, at Cherbourg, France. According to the museum exhibit, the family spent most of their time enjoying the British luxury liner. But some crew members did make disparaging comments to Laroche and his daughters, believing they were Italian or Japanese because of their darker skin.
On the night of April 14, Laroche was in the smoking parlor with other men traveling second class when he felt the ship hit the iceberg. He ran back to his room to check on his wife and daughters.
When the ship began to sink, Laroche placed the family’s money and valuables in a coat and draped it around his wife’s shoulders. (The coat was later stolen.) He then placed his family in a lifeboat and stayed on the ship helping get other women and children to safety.
He told his wife he would meet her in New York. But he didn’t survive and his body was never found.
LeBrun said Juliette Laroche, their two daughters and unborn son survived, and when they eventually returned to France, her father had lost his winery during World War I. The family lived in poverty for a few years until she won a settlement from the Titanic disaster.
“They led a semi-normal life,” LeBrun said. “Juliette never remarried, and the girls never married. Some people believe she was overprotective of them. But their son did lead a normal life and he married a woman named Claudine and they had two sons and a daughter.”
Alberts said it took her several years to figure out how they were related to Laroche. His grandfather Henri Cadet Laroche was married 11 times. Joseph Laroche was born from the union between the grandfather and his 11th wife. Alberts and LeBrun’s family members are the descendants of the union from Henri Cadet Laroche and his first wife.
LeBrun said she just happened to find all of this out last month after she read a Facebook post by Alberts, an actress and writer who’s working on a screenplay about Laroche. The cousins hadn’t been in contact for nearly two decades.
LeBrun said that while she enjoyed Cameron’s tale of two young people from different social classes falling in love aboard a doomed ship, it’s not a complete story.
“For me, the real love story is between Joseph and Juliette,” LeBrun said.
Alberts said it’s important to correct the historical record.
“I want everybody to know that the Titanic was going to Haiti, and there was a black man onboard who wasn’t a slave or waiter or servant,” Alberts said. “I remember seeing the movie with my father in 1997 and I had goose bumps. It means even more now.”