Ask McGehee: Who was Emma Roche?

young emma roche posing for a portait
Emma Langdon Roche in 1894 at the age of 17, when she graduated from Mobile’s Convent of the Visitation. Unfortunately, no one ever took the time to fully interview this “Renaissance Woman” of Mobile. Photo courtesy Historic Mobile Preservation Society

Emma Langdon Roche (1878 – 1945) once described herself as an “artist, writer, housekeeper and farmer.” In retrospect, she could well be termed Mobile’s “Renaissance Woman.” She was born in the sprawling family home on the west side of North Lafayette Street north of Spring Hill Avenue. Her father, Thomas, was an Irish immigrant who first appeared in Mobile’s 1874 city directory with the occupation of “Coach Painter.” His address was listed as “North Lafayette Street between Spring Hill Avenue and Centre Street.” This is where his daughter would be born four years later.

Thomas Roche (pronounced “roach”) soon went from painting coaches to renting them out as part of the Waverly Stables on Royal Street. In the 19th century, those carriages were often hired out for funerals and by the mid-1880s, he had added a mortuary to the business.

Thomas had married Annie James, a Mobilian and the daughter of Thomas James, one of the city’s famous “builder / architects.” James was the contractor for some of Mobile’s most prominent 19th century structures, including Barton Academy, Government Street Presbyterian Church and the City Market (now the History Museum of Mobile). The former James home on Lafayette Street would become home to the Roche family for nearly a century. 

The Roches had four children: Edward (1873), Frank (1876), Emma (1878) and Thomas (1883). The eldest, Edward, was never associated with the mortuary, and when his father died in 1904, Roche Mortuary was bequeathed to Frank and Thomas. Edward received $300, and Emma was not mentioned in her father’s will at all. There must have been some agreement that the brothers would look out for their sister.

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According to city directories, Emma resided in the family home with her brothers Frank and Tom. The arrangement may explain her terming herself a “housekeeper,” and the large property undoubtedly earned her the term “farmer” as well. But her passion became art.

The New York Experience

Emma studied under a local artist named Armantine Broun and, as her interest grew, Miss Broun convinced her to go to New York and study at the Art Students League in 1912. By that time, her brother, Tom, had married, and she was living with Frank who apparently financed his 34-year-old sister’s travels and art education.

The Art Students League dated back to 1875 when a group of both male and female artists broke away from the more conservative National Academy of Design. By the time Emma arrived, the organization had built a landmark structure on West 57th Street. There, she was taught by some of the nation’s most renowned artists, including Frank DuMond, impressionist William Merritt Chase and many others. Her studies would have encompassed both landscape painting and portraiture.

One of the tenets of her art teachers was the idea to paint everyday scenes and people. Upon her return to Mobile Emma did just that. She began to study and appreciate the different cultures living in her home town, including American Indians, African Americans and Creoles.

A year after leaving New York, she organized an art exhibition of local talents within the Battle House Hotel. That show was a first for Mobile. Its timing coincided with President Woodrow Wilson’s visit, and he took time to take it in.

Historic Sketches of the South

At this same time, Emma began to regularly travel to an isolated community known as Plateau where the last nine survivors of the Clotilda had resided since their emancipation in 1865. It is unknown if her brothers knew anything about her trips there.

Although their story was generally known, she took time to form relationships with the men and women and used her artistic skills to depict them. In 1914, a New York publishing house printed her “Historic Sketches of the South,” which included their stories. Had she waited much longer, many of the individuals of whom she wrote and their memories would have been gone.

Emma’s relationship with the residents of today’s Africatown did not end with her book’s publication. For more than 20 years, she would make regular visits and maintain those friendships.

Mobile’s First Art Museum

In 1925, Miss Roche joined with local artists to found the Allied Arts Guild and started promoting the idea of creating an art museum for Mobile. She continued her study of art, and records show she boarded a Holland-American liner in 1928 to bring her home from a trip to France. The ship’s manifest indicates she was occupying a “Tourist / Third Class” cabin.

A decade later, she was appointed the Alabama State Director for the Federal Art Project — a WPA program under the New Deal. As a result of those new programs, Emma Roche established Mobile’s first publicly funded museum in 1936. It was located within the Mobile Public Library on Government Street.

After opening the museum, Emma Roche retired and taught art to neighborhood children. She died at the age of 67 in 1945. Her will left her “household effects” to her brother, Frank, her books to the Mobile Public Library, and sums to local orphanages, Little Sisters of the Poor and the Rotary Crippled Children’s Clinic at the Mobile Infirmary. 

Today, a number of her works of art are owned by the Historic Mobile Preservation Society and are on display in Oakleigh. Unfortunately, the location of many other of her drawings and paintings is unknown.

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