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The Engineer

Based on a True Story

By Maria WallischPublished 2 years ago 16 min read
The Laroche Family

Joseph Laroche had always loved math, and he was always good at it. He was patient and steady and didn’t give up easily on solving a problem. He was a quiet and studious boy. Growing up in Haiti, his mother told him from the time he was young that he was going to study hard and get a good education, and when he was old enough, he would go abroad and study in France. Joseph’s uncle, Cincinnatus Leconte, was the president of Haiti, so Joseph’s parents had always held him to a high standard, and reminded him that he would always have to carry himself in a way that represented his family well. Joseph’s parents sent him abroad to study in France when he was 15 years old. They wanted him to get the best education possible and thought he would be more successful in France than in Haiti, so off he went at 15, leaving his home and family behind.

Joseph quickly noticed upon arriving in France that very few other people there looked like him, and he stood out. He didn’t know any other Haitians. At first, it was surprising to him how many stares he got from strangers, but he was used to greeting people in the streets with his uncle and coming from a family in the public eye, it didn’t bother him so much that people stared. Joseph had a sunny disposition, and a pleasant, quiet demeanor and most people quickly took a liking to him.

When it was time for him to continue his education at University, his mother warned him to not get distracted and to focus on his studies, but Juliette was more than just a distraction. She was a force that he could not ignore. He felt an unspoken bond between them because they were both different. Juliette felt she had to prove herself as the only woman in the class, and Joseph felt a similar urge to prove that just because he looked different didn’t mean he couldn’t keep up. It was a Wednesday afternoon when he spotted her in the first row of his class, her hair tied back, and eyes glued to the professor, soaking in every word of the lecture, and taking notes dutifully. When the class ended, and the students filed out of the classroom, he added an extra skip in his step to catch up to her. They were inseparable ever since.

Not long after they finished their degrees, Joseph and Juliette were married in a beautiful ceremony on the grounds of Juliette’s family home. Juliette came from a wealthy family, and she was their only daughter, so this was a big occasion for everyone. Juliette’s family, thrilled that their only daughter was getting married, happily welcomed Joseph into the family. He was a smart young man who had just finished his engineering degree, and they were confident he would be able to provide for their daughter and make an excellent father to their future grandchildren.

It wasn’t long after the wedding that Juliette found out she was pregnant, and the young couple had their first daughter, Simonne. Simonne was a precious baby girl with bouncy brown curls and wide brown eyes. The young couple was overjoyed. Shortly after Simmone was born, Juliette discovered that she was pregnant again, with their second daughter, Louise. Simonne and Louise were born just a year apart, so the young couple had their hands full with a one-year-old and a newborn. Juliette stayed home with the two young girls, while Joseph took the train to the city each day in search of work. Despite his qualifications and his engineering degree, he was struggling to find a job that allowed him to provide for his growing family. The work he was able to find paid him a meager salary, which he knew wouldn’t be enough to support his wife and two daughters. Juliette and Joseph wanted to keep growing their family, and hoped to have a son one day as well. Joseph knew that Juliette’s family would be able to help them if they needed it, but he wanted to be able to provide for his family as a husband and father. He never wanted his children to lack anything they needed.

The jobs he was able to find never paid him what he deserved. They always found an excuse to give him lower wages. He was too young, they would say, or too inexperienced. But Joseph’s former classmates from school were finding jobs, and he graduated at the top of his class. Joseph knew that it was difficult for Juliette to understand why he had a harder time than his classmates finding work, but he understood that he looked different than them, and that didn’t help him. He’d always had to work twice as hard as everyone else. When Joseph applied to positions and visited offices in the city, he didn’t see anyone else there who looked like him. Not in the jobs he was looking for, at least. Joseph had a degree, he spoke French, English, and Creole. He was smart, kind, and pleasant. Still, it never felt like enough.

Joseph accepted what work he could find, even if he was underpaid and undervalued because he didn’t have a choice. He was a father now. It wasn’t just about him. His daughters and his wife meant everything to him now. His family had given up so much for him to have the opportunity to study in France and secure higher education, something not everyone had the chance to do back home. He hadn’t seen his family since he was 15. They had all sacrificed so that Joseph could be successful in France as an engineer. He wanted to make his family proud and make all of their dreams come true, but he was finding that hard to do in France.

As the months passed, Joseph began to grow weary from the stares on the train every day, He dreaded his commute to the city. When he was able to find work, he kept his head down and tried to complete his work quickly and flawlessly. He didn’t have room to make errors. He was meticulous and focused. He finished his work, made the commute back home, and then did it all over again the next day. After months of this routine, he became more sullen and discouraged by his job prospects.

He told Juliette how it was for him, and she could understand, to an extent, even though she didn’t experience it herself, exactly. She remembered what it was like to be the only woman in their university class, how the boys in the class taunted and teased her mercilessly. Except for Joseph, who was gentle and kind. That’s what had drawn her to him in the first place, that he seemed to respect and believe in her when no one else did. She knew it wasn’t easy for him. He had studied so hard, and always done so well. He deserved to get a job that appreciated him.

On the train ride home one particularly hard day, Joseph stared down at his feet, avoiding eye contact with the other passengers, as he often did not find much kindness within their glances. He thought about whether his life would have turned out differently if he had remained in Haiti, where faces and glances were more familiar to him. He worried his daughters would experience the same kind of chilling regards from strangers as he did. When he arrived home, the scent of fresh bread warmed him, and he felt at peace once more. The sound of Simonne and Louise giggling in the next room as they played together was the most beautiful music that filled their home. Joseph entered the kitchen where Juliette was preparing a stew, the perfect dish to warm him from the cold remarks he had endured from his colleagues all day.

Comment s'est passée ta journée?” Juliette asked, turning to face him. “How was your day?”

Joseph’s deep sigh and worried look were enough to answer her question, without having to go into too many details. She could see his stress and how cluttered his mind must have been, even as he gave her a small smile and a gentle kiss on the forehead. As he sat down on the dining chair beside her, Juliette took his hand and placed it softly upon her lower stomach. Joseph felt a wave of emotions, as he touched the familiar bump he had fallen in love with twice before when he was able to feel his daughter’s growth and imagine their personalities before ever being able to see them.

The bump was still small but carried so much hope and joy for Joseph and Juliette. While Joseph felt his future was still uncertain, he also felt an intense and overwhelming love for his growing family, and he was certain he needed to do whatever possible to ensure they would have the best opportunities in their precious lives.

It was April 10th, 1912, Sailing Day, and the sky was clear. Joseph, Juliette, Simonne, and Louise rose before the sun to leave their family home behind and catch the train to Paris.

Juliette felt a lump rise in her throat as she realized that this would be the last time they saw their home in France. Her hand rested on the bump on her lower stomach, and she hoped she was making the right choice for her unborn child.

When they arrived at the dock, the boat train was loading passengers at Gare Saint-Lazare. The Laroche's waited in the Cour de Rome to board the ship to their new lives. They would take the Titanic to New York City, and then they would board another boat to take them to Haiti, where Joseph’s family would be waiting to welcome them home.

While the Laroche's waited to board, they met up with an old friend, Monsieur Renard, who lived in Paris. It was comforting to see a familiar face on the dock before embarking on their journey. Louise and Simonne sat in their prams, giggling and in high spirits. The light April breeze blew through the girls’ brown curls.

Monsieur Renard stopped to give Juliette and Joseph a quick kiss on each cheek. “Tu vas bien?” he asked. “Have you been well?”

“It’s been much too long that we have not seen you, my friend,” said Joseph.

“We are eager to make the journey back to Haiti. My uncle has set me up with a job as a mathematics professor. We will be around family. I think the girls will be happy.”

“I’m just so very glad we switched our tickets to second class on the Titanic instead of first-class on La France,” said Juliette.

“First class would have been nice, yes, but they wouldn’t allow us to be with the girls, could you imagine? You know how poor Louise falls ill,” she continued.

“How could you be apart from your little ones?” Monsieur Renard scoffed.

“On such a long journey, no less. Well, thank goodness you were able to find tickets on the Titanic, I hear it’s a very nice ship.”

Louise began to fuss in her pram, and Monsieur Renard leaned down to comfort her.

“Shh, ma fille, don’t cry! I’ll buy you a balloon!” said Monsieur Renard. Nearby was a little stand where a man was selling balloons. He bought a yellow one and brought it to Louise, who smiled and wrapped her chubby fist around the balloon string.

“Say thank you to Monsieur Renard for the lovely balloon!” said Juliette to Louise. “Merci!”

Louise was smiling and playful again. The balloon calmed her down and the sea breeze was gentle as the adults looked at each other and contemplated whether they would see each other again. It was going to be a long journey to Haiti, but it was worth it for their family, including the baby on the way.

Louise began to fuss again as the string of her balloon slipped through her tiny, clumsy fingers into the ocean air.

“Oh no, ma fille!” exclaimed Monsieur Renard. “Don’t worry, I’ll get you another!”

Monsieur Renard rushed back to the balloon vendor to buy another balloon, a red one this time. He handed it back to Louise. “Thank you, Monsieur Renard, you spoil her,” said Juliette.

When it was time to board, Monsieur Renard kissed the faces of his friends one last time.

Bonne chance et bon voyage!” he cried, waving the family off as they made their way down the pier to board the ship. He stood watching the Laroche family board until Louise’s red balloon disappeared with them into the crowd. He wondered if he would ever see his friends again.

Once onboard, the Laroche's were happy to see another French family that they met on the train to Paris. They had two young boys who played with Louise and Simmone.

Aboard the Titanic, the Laroche family settled in, happy to be able to experience the voyage through the eyes of their daughters. The girls were happy and relaxed. They played with their new friends and strolled with Joseph on the deck. Juliette took a moment to herself while Joseph was playing with the girls to write a letter to her father.

My dear Dad,” she began.

I have just been told that we are going to stop in a moment, so I take this opportunity to drop you a few lines and tell you about us.

We boarded the Titanic last evening at 7:00. If you could see this monster, our tender looked like a fly compared to her. 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. A board put before them prevents them from falling. They're as well, if not better, than in their beds.

The boat set out when we were eating and we could not believe she was moving: we are less shaken than in a train. We just feel a slight trepidation. The girls ate well last night. They only took a nap in the whole night and the chime of the bell announcing breakfast woke them up. Louise laughed a lot at it. At the moment they are strolling on the enclosed deck with Joseph, Louise is in her pram, and Simonne is pushing her. They already have become acquainted with people. We made the trip from Paris with a gentleman and his lady and their little boy too, who is the same age as Louise.

I think they are the only French people on the boat, so we sat at the same table so that we could chat together. Simonne was so funny a moment ago, she was playing with a young English girl who had lent her her doll. My Simonne was having a great conversation with her, but the girl did not understand a single word. People on board are very nice. Yesterday, they both were running after a gentleman who had given them chocolates.

Up to now, I have not felt seasick. I hope it will go on this way. 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.

I will stop here now for I believe we are going to put in and I wouldn't like to miss the next mail. Once again, thank you my dear dad for all your marks of bounty towards us, and receive all the warmest kisses from your loving daughter, Juliette.”

While Juliette was writing her letter, Joseph took the girls for a stroll on the deck. Joseph took the girls to the edge of the ship to admire the vastness of the sea and the waves that were gently bouncing them along. He lifted them to see over the railing as a young English couple stopped to admire the views just a few feet beside them.

“I hope these little girls' parents know that their caretaker is being so careless with them, holding them in such a manner,” the British woman complained to her husband.

Joseph was used to people assuming things about him, especially when he was alone with the girls. He knew that they had mistakenly thought that he didn’t speak English.

“I am their father,” he responded in English. The woman looked shocked and embarrassed and the couple quickly moved along. Joseph was glad the girls didn’t understand so that they would not have to experience the uneasiness he felt in his stomach upon hearing such a bold comment.

Besides a few similar interactions, the first few days aboard the ship were fairly uneventful. The girls were getting used to being on board, and the family was comfortable in their quarters.

The night of April 14th, Joseph and Juliette put the girls to bed and got ready for a night in the ballroom where the ship’s band would be playing. Juliette was concerned about leaving the girls, but Joseph assured her that they would be sound asleep, and urged her to have a night of fun, as soon they would be arriving in Haiti and he would have to start working again.

They kissed their sleeping girls on the forehead and headed to the ballroom. The ship had a contagious energy and Juliette’s worries were quickly eased as she was swept up in the nightly entertainment. Joseph is right, she thought. They could use a night of fun.

After a night of dancing and enjoying the ship’s amenities, they stumbled back to their cabin, careful not to wake the girls. They had barely drifted off to sleep when they were awoken by frantic knocking on the cabin doors. Thinking she was dreaming at first, Juliette sleepily asked Joseph what they were yelling about in English. Another knock startled the girls awake, and Joseph quickly went to comfort them.

“Everyone up to the deck!” bellowed a voice from outside their door. Juliette, still not fully awake, started feeling uneasy as Joseph started dressing the girls. Panicked passengers began filling the hallways and chaos quickly started to take over the ship.

“Joseph, what’s happening?” Juliette frantically asked. Everyone outside the cabin was shouting in English, and she didn’t understand them.

“Help me get the girls dressed, quickly,” said Joseph. “We need to go!”

Joseph began to fill his pockets with their valuables, quickly putting on layers of clothing, while Juliette scrambled to dress herself and the girls, who were becoming agitated. In the hallways, the commotion continued. Joseph scooped up the girls and followed the frantic crowd up to the main deck. Juliette stepped into the hallway and was jolted awake by the sudden chill of her feet being submerged in water.

The Laroche family made their way to the upper deck, where the ship’s crew was frantically trying to herd the crowd of panicking passengers. Joseph was holding the girls, and Juliette clung to him, overwhelmed and disoriented by the shouting in a language she couldn’t understand.

“Women and children first in the lifeboats!” yelled a crew member, guiding terrified mothers with their babies clinging to their chests onto the small lifeboats.

One woman was screaming and crying, resisting two crew members who were lifting her up and lowering her into a lifeboat. Some passengers were too scared to leave the ship and were being forced into lifeboats.

Nearby, a member of the kitchen staff was throwing the deck chairs overboard into the water. The lifeboats were filling up fast, and it became clear that a lot of people were going to find themselves in the water with the ship. More people would have a better chance of surviving with some kind of flotation device.

“Stay close to me,” Juliette pleaded, locking eyes with Joseph.

Joseph nodded and handed Simonne to Juliette, so they were each holding one of the girls. “Don’t leave me,” Juliette repeated again, more desperately this time.

“I don’t understand what they are saying,” Juliette said tearfully to Joseph.

“It’s okay,” said Joseph, “I understand, I’ll tell you what they tell us to do. It’s going to be okay,” Joseph reassured her.

“Lifeboat 10!” Yelled a member of the crew, coming up behind Juliette and putting his hands on her shoulders, guiding her towards a lifeboat with a few open spaces.

“Joseph!” Juliette’s eyes widened as she looked back at Joseph, still holding Louise. The crew member was ushering her towards the lifeboat. Joseph pushed his way through the crowd.

He held Louise tightly against him. “I love you, mon cherie,” he whispered, kissing his daughter’s head before handing her to Juliette, who was sitting in the lifeboat clutching Simonne, tears streaming down her face.

“Joseph!” she screamed. “You have to come with us! Tell them to let you come with us!” The girls were crying.

“Lifeboat 10: FULL!” yelled the crewman.

“I’ll get on the next one, don’t worry!” Joseph cried, trying to reassure her.

“I love you, be calm for the girls, I will see you soon!”

Lifeboat 10 drifted away into the icy waters. Juliette felt numb as she stared at the once beautiful ship, slowly filling with water. She clutched her daughters more tightly than she ever had before, making herself the promise that she would never let go of them again.

Maman, j'ai froid aux pieds,” “Mamma, my feet are cold,” the girls cried.

Tears streamed down Juliette’s cheeks as she squeezed her girls tighter. She closed her eyes and saw Joseph again, his words echoed in her mind. Be calm for the girls.

Joseph Laroche. Source: Reddit.

Joseph Laroche was the only recorded Black man on the Titanic. He and his daughters, Simonne and Louise, were the only Black passengers. Louise, Simonne, and Juliette survived, but Joseph did not. His body was never recovered. Instead of proceeding to Haiti, Juliette decided to take her daughters back to the familiarity of France. She gave birth to a boy, who she named Joseph after his father. She never remarried and died in Paris in 1980. On her grave is a plaque that reads "Juliette Laroche 1889-1980, wife of Joseph Laroche, lost at sea on RMS Titanic, April 15th 1912"


About the Creator

Maria Wallisch

Self-identified Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) trying to carve out a joyful corner in an increasingly bleak world. I have one daughter, a French Bulldog named Chanel who farts a lot. I'm an Aries.

Instagram: @mariadubbs

Medium: @maria.wallisch

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