Contemplating the Black Atlantic

A decaying pier in Grand Case, Saint Martin (Photo: george.bremer, Flickr).

If transatlantic slavery remains one of the foundational premises of a Black or African Diaspora, then the great ocean—the Atlantic—holds vital pieces of Black social memory. Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic centered this ocean as the terrain of diasporic theory and cultural flow decades ago. In more recent times, the metaphors and magics of these waters, such as those in the writings of Christina Sharpe, Omise’eke Tinsley, and most recently Tiffany Lethabo King, transmit this space as more than a thoroughfare or cemetery but as a force entwined with our living. Joining these conversations, I return to the Atlantic and the theme of Black people and water to contemplate two unlikely companions. The first, Joseph Philippe Lemercier Laroche, a young Haitian engineer, recognized, along with his daughters, as the only known Black passengers aboard the Titanic1; and second, MaVynee “the Beach Lady” Betsch, an environmentalist, who dedicated herself to the preservation of American Beach in Florida, its ecosystem, and history. Together, these travelers of different times instruct about the bittersweet relationship with this ocean and our roles in tending to it.

On the eve of April 15, 1912, alerted by a steward that the ship had suffered an accident, Joseph and his wife Juliette carried their sleeping daughters, Louise and Simonne, to the boat deck of the Titanic.2 A pregnant Juliette and children were rescued on a life boat and Joseph, along with around fifteen hundred passengers and crew, perished. The Laroche family, who lived in France, was en route to Haiti for the birth of its next member and to start a new life.

Born in Cap-Haïtien, Haiti, in 1886, Joseph grew up under the care of his wealthy single entrepreneurial mother, Euzélie. Wanting to create access for her son, she curated a childhood of education and exposure that at 15 took him to Beauvais, France to study engineering where he received a diploma in agronomic engineering in 1907. He also met Juliette, a young white, upper middle-class woman who he married in 1908.

The couple started a family, but racial discrimination constrained Joseph’s ability to find well-paid engineering work in France. After some negotiation, the couple decided to relocate to Haiti where Joseph had received an opportunity to teach math in Le Cap. Another pregnancy also pushed forward their leave date. Euzélie paid for the family’s return on the liner La France. However, due to La France’s restrictions on children, so it is told, Laroche exchanged the tickets for second class ones aboard the Titanic. The family boarded the famed ship in Cherbourg, France on April 10, 1912.

MaVynee Betsch may be the more remembered keeper of this water. The great-granddaughter of A.L. Lewis, Florida’s first Black millionaire and president of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company, and a descendant of Anna, the matriarch of the Kingsley Plantation, MaVynee was a child of Northern Florida’s Black history.3 Born of privilege in 1935 in Jacksonville, she spent her summers with her great-grandfather at American Beach—the historically Black beach he founded the year of her birth on Amelia island, an illegal landing spot for slavers and their enslaved during the early nineteenth century. MaVynee studied music at Oberlin, graduated in 1955, and then spent ten years in Europe as a professional opera singer before illness directed her home. This would be the end of her professional singing career. Back in the United States, MaVynee was diagnosed with colon cancer, which also had killed her mother. In 1975, she returned to American Beach, where, guided by the peace of her environment, she cared for her own cancer by self-educating and inviting a transformation not only in her body, but in her politics and way of life.

In the years following, MaVynee who became known as the “Beach lady”, dedicated her time and energy to raising public awareness about the history of American Beach and the natural world. An eco-feminist, she donated what’s often quoted as $750,000, presumably most of her inheritance, to environmental and wildlife organizations. She sought to protect the historical beach from development and helped have it successfully registered in 2001 as a historic site. She also secured for posterity a 60-foot stretch of sand dunes and worked to create a beach museum. With limited funds and in this midst of these efforts, she took up residence on the seashore eventually moving into a trailer, purchased for her by her sister, the academic Johnnetta Cole, who also helped her financially. The trailer functioned as an office. With no running water, she bathed in the ocean and slept on a lawn chair where she could see the stars she referred to as her “friends.”4

Educated and eccentric, MaVynee embodied her politics. She removed an R from her birth name Marvyne—disgusted by Ronald Regan’s disrespectful treatment of the environment. She grew a distinct greying lock and the fingernails of one hand to physically mirror the wildness she sought to sustain. With the recurrence of her cancer and the removal of her stomach, she moved into an apartment and was taken care of by family and community members appreciative of her dedicated labor until her death in September of 2005 at the age of 70, years before the American Beach Museum opened its doors in 2014 and only months before the Dalai Lama recognized her with his Unsung Heroes for Compassion Award. In 2015, much closer to home, she was honored by the Gullah/Geechee Nation who she served in various capacities. MaVynee’s ashes were scattered at American Beach as desired.

The quiet and purpose MaVynee found alongside the Atlantic stands in stark contrast to Joseph’s abrupt end in those frigid northern waters, only lightened ever so slightly, by the prospect that his daughters and Juliette might survive. They did. Louise, who was one of the oldest living members of the Titanic when she died in 1998, spoke little of the tragedy like most of her family members. Wounded by their deepest loss, their silence and the broader silence around Blackness aboard this doomed voyage remained until fairly recently. A woman claiming to be Joseph’s distant relative, a 2003 opera by composer Sharon J. Willis, and a narrativized biography of Joseph Laroche published last month all have drawn attention to his and his family’s presence on this ship. Through his life, the liner’s mythical story of opulence and tragedy gives way to a history of race that ushered Laroche across waters in search of opportunities and into a second-class cabin. MaVynee’s story is another account of glamour across shores and a humbled return that brought her into a confrontation with body, spirit, and the salt-filled breeze that reconnected them. Both individuals invoke the Atlantic as an ongoing medium for the formation of Black and diasporic subjects.

Stories like Joseph’s satisfy our intrigue to know more historically about Black people in the West when so much of it has been left out the archives and national social memory, including the ventures across seas and the experiences of them. MaVynee’s political and embodied shifts, summon the Black imaginary and have us ask more intimate questions of self, of identity, and the kinds of values that enrich us. Through these individuals, we encounter Black people’s diverse movements across oceans, their observance of them, and their interconnection. The orishas Iemanjá and Olokun come to mind, but so too do Poseidon and Amphitrite, among many other sea-connected gods and goddesses once mythologized by the ancient, maritime Greeks. Laroche and MaVynee, two distant relatives in diaspora, invite us to explore the Atlantic and water more generally as a force in the complex making of Black life. They teach, MaVynee in particular, that we may turn to the ocean for comfort and peace, for our historical bonds, and for considering, especially in this time of environmental peril, how our long relationship with the elemental world can guide our actions.

  1. There was one other person of color documented as traveling on the Titanic. A young man named Victor Giglio born in England to an Italian father and Egyptian mother.
  2.  The following is a list of sources used to compile this historical overview. Please see Serge Bilé, Black Man on the Titanic: The Story of Joseph Laroche (Coral Gables, FL: Mango Publishing, 2019); “Miss Louise Laroche: A Haitian French Family Which Traveled in Second Class Aboard Titanic,Titanic Historical Society, Inc.; and “Mr. Joseph Philippe Lemercier Laroche,” Encyclopedia Titanica.
  3.  I have drawn on the following articles and interviews to construct this brief biography of MaVynee. Please see Adrienne Burke, “Celebrating the life and legacy of The Beach Lady on January 13,” Fernandina Observer, January 4, 2018; Michelle Nijhuis. “Madame Butterfly: For MaVynee Betsch, activism is always a bravura performance,” Sierra Club; Russ Rymer, “Beach Lady,” Smithsonian Magazine; and Kate Santish, “The Spirit of the American Beach,” Orlando Sentinel, April 17, 1994.
  4.  Kate Santish “The Spirit of the American Beach,” Orlando Sentinel, April 17, 1994.
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Celeste Henery

Celeste Henery is a cultural anthropologist working at the intersections of race, gender, and health. Her work explores what it means to feel well in a world crosscut by inequality. She is a Research Associate in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

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