Taking On History
There is more to the story than James Cameron's CGI effects
by Anthony Sherwood
I was in Halifax, the city of my birth, in late March of last year giving a talk at the Nova Scotia Community College to the graduating Television Production students. After my talk I was approached by a student who asked if I was coming back to Halifax next year in 2012 to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. I told the student that I hadn’t planned on coming for the event. The next day I was having coffee with a colleague who informed me that he had heard that there was a black man who had sailed aboard the Titanic. Immediately my curiosity was elevated. I had never heard of a black man aboard the world’s most famous ship. I certainly didn’t see any blacks in the James Cameron film. Who was this black man? Was he travelling third class aboard the Titanic? My colleague couldn’t answer any of these questions. He speculated that it may be just a rumour.
When I returned home the following day, I went on my computer to find some information about this black man who sailed aboard the Titanic and discovered that the story was indeed true. The man’s name was Joseph Laroche who was born in Haiti and came from a very wealthy and powerful Haitian family. Laroche’s uncle was the President of Haiti – President Dessalines Leconte. This information immediately elevated my curiosity even further. You see, my wife was born in Haiti and I had a strong interest in Haitian culture and history. I discovered that Joseph Laroche was sent to Paris, France when he was only 15 years old to study engineering. Laroche obtained his University degree and married a French woman. Despite graduating at the top of his class, Laroche was unable to find any employment as an engineer because of the colour of his skin. Supporting his family became quite difficult. He had a wife and two young girls. His youngest daughter was born with some medical issues and required expensive medication. Joseph decided to go back to Haiti where his influential family could help him find employment as an engineer. Joseph Laroche and his family boarded the Titanic in Cherbourg, France on April 10, 1912.
There is also a legend that the first black heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Johnson attempted to purchase a ticket to sail aboard the Titanic when he was in England. Legend has it that Johnson was refused a ticket because of the colour of his skin. The legend was popularized in a famous song recorded by the great blues singer, Leadbelly.
I had never heard of Joseph Laroche, the only black man to have sailed aboard the Titanic. I also didn’t know that the great heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Johnson was allegedly refused passage on the famous ship. I thought it would be a great story to tell since I was sure most of the world did not know the story of these two black men and their relationship with the Titanic.
It was already the late summer of 2011 and the 100th anniversary of the Titanic was fast approaching. If I was going to create a story for the 100th anniversary I had to act quickly. But how was I going to tell this story? I thought about these two black men and their relationship with the Titanic. One man never made the history books while the other was one of the most famous black men in the world during his reign as heavyweight boxing champion. These two men were completely different. They had a different philosophy about life, different morals, different social backgrounds. Joseph Laroche was an engineer, an academic with reason backed by science. Laroche was a dedicated family man and a devoted husband. Jack Johnson was a loud braggart, a famous womanizer who had a quick temper and loved to fight. Laroche was well-educated from a reputable university in Paris while Jack Johnson never got past Grade three. I thought about this and wondered what would happen if these two men came back from the grave and both had a chance to tell their respective stories about the Titanic. If these two men were placed in the same room how would they react to one another? I thought a stage play would be the best format to tell this story. I could bring these two characters back to life and place them together on the same stage to allow them to interact with each other. The character of Jack Johnson would be fun to write because he was a bigger-than life personality and his outlandish exploits in and out of the ring were well documented. The character of Joseph Laroche would take much more research. He was a man who was not well-known. Fortunately with the assistance of my wife’s Haitian relatives I was able to secure letters and other forms of written documents in Haiti about Laroche and his journey aboard the Titanic. In September, 2011, I finished writing the first draft of the stage play. It was titled, “TITANIC: The Untold Story”.
I have discovered so many amazing stories about people of African descent in Canada and abroad. Many of these stories had been ignored or even suppressed.
It was extremely important for me to tell this story. I formed my own production company in 1991. The mandate of my company was to produce stories from the African diaspora with particular emphasis on African-Canadian culture and history. During my career as a filmmaker, producer, writer and story-teller, I have discovered so many amazing stories about people of African descent in Canada and abroad. Many of these stories had been ignored or even suppressed. I felt I had a moral responsibility to bring some of these stories to life. Several years ago I produced a docu-drama film about Canada’s one and only all-black military battalion that was formed during the First World War. At the time I made the film, this story was not well-known. I discovered that there were black men who served Canada in this all-black battalion and fought and died for their country yet no one was talking about them. There were young black Canadian soldiers buried in the ground in France whose stories were not being told. I felt it was important to tell their story. In the case of Joseph Laroche, the only man to have sailed aboard the Titanic, I felt a similar obligation. Here was a black man who was left out of the history books yet again. I also knew that there were many commemorative events planned around the world for the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. There were literally hundreds of events being organized in many different formats and presentations. My project was the only one that focused on the story of a person of African descent. I wanted people to know that a black man was a part of the history of the Titanic. I wanted to ensure that we had a voice in the commemoration of this historic 100th anniversary event.
I am pleased that “TITANIC: The Untold Story” opened with great success and to rave reviews.
The Titanic sank to the bottom of the ocean on April 15, 1912. In April, 2012, one hundred years later, the play, “TITANIC: The Untold Story” had its world premiere in Nova Scotia. I selected Nova Scotia as the location for the world première because the Province has a very special and close relationship with the history of the Titanic. The rescue mission for the Titanic originated in Nova Scotia. Also, most of the victims of the Titanic are buried in that Canadian province. I am pleased that “TITANIC: The Untold Story” opened with great success and to rave reviews. The play now sets sail on an international tour with Montreal its first port of destination. The Montreal première of this play is being presented at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts from July 16-22, 2012.
I hope everyone will come and see this entertaining play. It is a play with two very interesting characters. As Joseph Laroche and Jack Johnson tell their stories, there is an intense inter-play between the two characters, each one challenging the other’s actions in life. The two men couldn’t be more different. The two men square off in a fight defending their actions, morals and ideas. It is a play laden with fierce verbal battles, quick wit and startling information about two black men and their relationship with the most famous ship in the world.