Although the tragic sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912, involved many wealthy European-American aristocrats such as the Elkins and Widener families of Cheltenham, the event had a great cultural and folk-art impact on many segments of U.S. society, including black Americans.
In fact, contrary to popular belief that there were no people of African descent on the Titanic, an interracial family led by a black man, Joseph Laroche, with ancestral roots to Haiti’s great revolutionary leader, Jean-Jacques Desalines, was onboard and returning to his native land. Laroche, from Haiti’s ruling class, died on the Titanic, leaving behind his French-born wife Juliette and children after they boarded in Cherbourg, France and endured some degree of discrimination.
Ironically, George Widener and his wife Eleanor Elkins Widener (whose fathers Peter A.B. Widener and William L. Elkins were legendary Gilded-Age business partners living in opulent Cheltenham mansions), boarded in Cherbourg too with their book-collecting son, Harry. Eleanor was the only family member to survive the trip that they primarily took to purchase gifts for their daughter’s wedding.
Returning to Cheltenham devastated after losing her husband and son, Eleanor sought and received solace at the St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Elkins Park where memorial services were held for her kin.
The church at Ashbourne and Old York roads is commemorating the 100th anniversary of the disaster on Saturday, April 14, at 7:30 p.m., with popular music of those harrowing times being performed by Kate Mallon-Day, mezzo-soprano; baritone Paul DeWitt Reid (reverend); pianist and organist David Antony Lofton, as well as Irene Pokrovsky, accompanist. Exquisite Tiffany windows at the church, endowed by the Widener family, memorialize the tragedy and will accentuate the program’s ambiance.
However, just after the 1912 debacle, in the African-American community, “Legends sprang up concerning the celebrated African-American boxing champion Jack Johnson: the story went that Johnson had not been allowed to board the segregated ocean liner and thus his life was spared,” according to the online site, Louisiana Voices at www.louisianavoices, that explores various oral traditions. Johnson, a bodacious ebony-skinned man was very controversial for speaking out against racism and even flaunting romantic relationships with white women during the early 1900s, the era of Jim-Crow discrimination.
And that’s when various black folk-art poems and even song lyrics began to emerge about the Titanic, perhaps most notably sung by Huddie Ledbetter, popularly known as Leadbelly.
Born Jan. 15, 1888, on the Jeter plantation near Shreveport, La., Leadbelly seemed even tougher than the black heavyweight champion, Johnson. He was sent to prison for various violent crimes, including for killing a cousin and knifing a prominent white citizen.
Yet, Leadbelly was a very skilled musician, mastering the 12-string guitar, among other instruments, and performing “The Titanic” in 1912 on Dallas street corners with the likes of the legendary blues singer and guitarist Blind Lemon Jefferson, according to denverpost.com.
Such compositions, likely very offensive to the upper-class Wideners and Elkinses, poked fun at the so-called elite passengers of the Titanic: “Titanic was sinkin’ down … Had them lifeboats around … savin’ the women and children [and] lettin’ the men go down … Jack Johnson want to get on board, [but] Captain he says, ‘I ain’t haulin’ no coal!”
The lyrics concluded: “Black man oughta shout for joy, never lost a girl or either a boy. Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well.”
It’s likely that another popular black oration, “Shine and the Titanic,” developed from Leadbelly’s version, often recited in bars or clubs, with the black ship worker “Shine” admonishing the captain as he escaped from what he described as a “stinkin,’ sinkin’ ship.” Some versions of the oration are extremely graphic, a precursor of what today is known as gangsta rap, according to some scholars.
Leadbelly (who died in 1949) became a noted musician, even touring with the great folk-art scholar, John A. Lomax, in a car that carried in its trunk a 315-pound acetate disc recorder that allowed them to record folk music from around the country, including many of Leadbelly’s songs. In 1934, the duo ended up in Philadelphia, giving a show and then presentation at Bryn Mawr College where the school’s president became very upset after Leadbelly passed a hat around to collect money.
He reportedly left with a very decent chunk of cash.
Don ‘Ogbewii’ Scott, a Melrose Park resident, can be reached at email@example.com.