The Gains and Losses of Passing for White – Ernest Torregano


Gladys Torregano

In 1912, Ernest Joseph Torregano, a thirty-year old New Orleans native, was a porter on the Southern Pacific Railroad,. For about three years, Torregano had worked the run from New Orleans to San Francisco. After each successful run, he would return home to his wife, Viola Perrett Torregano, and his only child, Gladys Marguerite, who had been born on 7 February 1904. Like so many other Southerners of color, Ernest Torregano found moving to California to be a golden opportunity to better himself. In his case however, it came at a drastic cost – the loss of his wife and child. He was able to use what was undoubtedly his God-given intelligence and aptitude, but to do so, he passed for white. In his early adult years, Ernest had worked as a singer and handyman for a traveling minstrel troupe. It was while with the troupe, that he met one of it’s pretty stars, a guitar-playing young lady named Viola Perrett. They were married and soon had their daughter Gladys, after which they quit the show so that he could sign-on with the Southern Pacific Railroad.

Concurrent with his employment on the railroad, Ernest completed his high school studies and through independent study courses and classes at the Saint Ignatius College of Law, he was able to pass the California bar examination on 7 April 1913. During all of this time, he maintained a foot in both worlds – telling friends and relatives in New Orleans that he was working as a warehouseman in San Francisco, even having relatives to visit, while all the way he kept up a separate white identity for the sake of his schooling and his intended profession. He regularly went back to New Orleans, spending time with his wife and daughter who lived in the home of his mother, Mrs. Louise Johnson Torregano.

This back-and-forth changing of identities continued until 1927, when his mother died, and he was last heard from by his family. He married a white woman, Pearl Clauncy Bryant, on 15 March 1917, and they were married for thirty years until her death in 1947. Over the course of a legal and civic career stretching over forty years, Ernest Torregano gained a reputation as a brilliant and astute attorney, specializing in bankruptcy cases. He made a name for himself in the legal community of San Francisco and in French cultural circles, never eliminating that one particular aspect of his hidden identity. He described his ancestry to friends as “French Creole” from New Orleans. He was a leader in the San Francisco Alliance Française and supported the French Résistance during World War II. He was a President of the Lafayette Club, the premier Franco-American organization in San Francisco. He was a civic leader, familiar to the mayors and politicians of the city, even serving as chairman of the San Francisco Planning Commission for several years.

While Ernest built a successful practice, good reputation, and modest fortune in San Francisco, his daughter and young bride remained in New Orleans. Torregano maintained contact for a time with his sister, Marie Louise Torregano Smith, who lived in Chicago. He encouraged his brother, Alphonse Torregano, to move to San Francisco, where he also passed and worked as a photographer, under the altered name “Alfred” Torregano. His wife, Viola, and his daughter heard rumblings about his new life in San Francisco, but neither one of them sought to ‘out’ him or to disturb him in any way. Years later, when asked about the situation, Gladys Torregano, then Mrs. William Stevens, stated, “Mother had pride and when her man left her, she said nothing more about him.”

Gladys Torregano Stevens, center; Alphonse Torregano, left; Ernest J. Torregano, right.

Gladys Torregano Stevens, center; Alphonse Torregano, left; Ernest J. Torregano, right.

In those ensuing years between his last communication with his family and his death in 1954, Gladys attended the preparatory department of Straight University, and was eventually married at age eighteen to William Stevens, a baker, in July 1922. The Stevens were married for sixteen years and had six children before he died in 1938. Mrs. Stevens went to work as a factory worker and later worked as a bookkeeper for an insurance company for many years. She lived at 1642 North Claiborne Avenue, where she reared her six children: Vallery Albert Stevens; Verna Stevens Smith, Ralph Stevens; Ethel Theresa Stevens (Mrs. McLean George), Devota Rosalie Stevens (Mrs. Bowman Macklin Thomas, Jr.); and Jeanette Earline Stevens (Mrs. Edmund Marcus LaCroix, Jr.).\

She moved to New York City and later to Los Angeles, where she was residing when her aunt, Marie Louise Torregano Smith, who worked for a white family in San Rafael, California. Her aunt informed her of her father’s success and the fact that he had died on 18 January 1954 in San Francisco.

This revelation by her aunt, launched Mrs. Stevens on what would be a more than six-year fight to be recognized as her father’s sole heir. In his will, Ernest Torregano, being a widower with no children (from his ‘white’ marriage), left a few charitable bequests and the sum of $1.00 to everyone proving to be a relative. The remainder of the estate was claimed by Alphonse or ‘Alfred’ Torregano (his brother) who claimed to be his sole heir. ‘Alfred’ Torregano claimed that he knew nothing of Gladys Stevens, that her story was without credit, and that he and his brother were not “colored.” The dispute launched a media sensation which was greatly covered by black press including JET magazine, The Chicago Defender, The Pittsburg Courier, and The Los Angeles Sentinel.

After a protracted legal battle in the Superior Court in San Francisco in May 1957, the Superior Court Judge threw the case out ruling that it could not be determined whether Mrs. Stevens was indeed a “pretermitted heir” to the Torregano estate. The law in California was that a child could only be disinherited if a clause to that effect was explicitly written into a will. Testimony from numerous witnesses was entered into the record: that of her aunt who had been in sporadic contact with her father for several years, that of old colleagues of his from his railroad days who heard him speak of his New Orleans family and that he was colored, and that of a Marie Bertha Mendez, then of Chicago, who met Torregano several times in 1918 and 1919. Mendez testified that she was from New Orleans and that Torregano gave her his card and stated that she was welcome to come to his office if he could ever do anything for her. He mentioned that he was ‘passing’ and that she could come because she was so fair, but should not bring any whose color might cause suspicion.

After five years in the courts, reaching the Court of Appeal of California, Mrs. Stevens finally met with victory, when in April 1962, the attorneys for her uncle moved for a settlement and dismissal of the case. Mrs. Stevens ultimately received over $200,000.00 and recognition as her father’s daughter. This last point was a source of pride for her. She insisted all along that legal recognition of her place as her father’s daughter was most important. Mrs. Stevens was asked why she nor her mother made demands of her father or sought to put an end to his charade, she responded by saying: “This is typical of our Creole women. When members of the family cross over to the other side, we never expose them. We know, and especially in the South, it’s the only chance some of them have of accumulating something. We were proud the ones who could ‘pass.’ And many Creole mothers who were deserted by husbands who ‘passed,’ simply buckled down and supported their children.” Mrs. Gladys Torregano Stevens died on 9 September 1987 in Los Angeles at the age of eighty-three years old.


[A Genealogical Note: Ernest Joseph Torregano, born 21 November 1882 in New Orleans and died 18 January 1954 in San Francisco, was the son of Louis Torregano (ca. 1840 – 26 May 1882), a man of color who worked as a carpenter and barrel maker, and Louise Johnson (ca. 1857 – 17 June 1927). His siblings were Charles Torregano (19 May 1877 – 3 January 1907); Louise Torregano Smith (bn. 11 December 1879), Alphonse Torregano (26 July 1886 – 11 September 1964), and Edgar Francois Vigo (26 September 1891 – 21 February 1961). An interesting turn-of-fate, is that while her uncle Alphonse (who went as ‘Alfred’) used the surname Torregano, he actually was a Vigo, born to Louise Johnson’s second mate, Emile Vigo, as was her last son, Edgar Francois Vigo.]

[An excellent work on racial passing is Allyson Hobb’s A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life (Harvard University Press, 2014, 400 pp.). Also recommended in the 2010 essay by the present writer entitled “Scapegoating the Past, Sacrificing the Present: The Pains of Racial Passing.”]

Jari Honora

The Los Angeles Sentinel, 30 May 1957, page A2; The Chicago Defender, 2 March 1957, page 8; The Los Angeles Sentinel, 24 January 1957, page A1; 31 January 1957, page A1; The Pittsburgh Courier, 5 May 1962, Page 17; JET, 26 April 1962, Pages 20-22.

25 thoughts on “The Gains and Losses of Passing for White – Ernest Torregano

  1. Thank you for ppsting this article.
    This is my family. I grew up knowing this story before it was ever in New Orleans and California history books before it hit Ebony magazine. My grandmother would tell me so many stories about our family and our history.

  2. Kudos to my fellow writer on CreoleGen, Jari Honora, for submitting this fascinating article !! Such a great piece of original research !!

  3. This was such an interesting read for me. I’ve heard this “story” before just never in full truth and evidence. I know the Torreganos and find it interesting how our lives are so interconnected and fascinating. Thanks so much for an informative and great story!

  4. I always enjoy Jari’s writings. Some of the descendants of Marie-Louise Panis passed over and may not know of their heritage. See writings about her life in Les Voyageurs and New Orleans Genesis.

  5. This has been going on for centuries. Most of the ‘mail-order’ brides ssent out west were ‘mixed’women from Louisiana. No one is ‘pure’ any race so if this man said he was Caucasian, so be it. Denying his children & the illegal marriages is a horse of another color. (no pun intended). There are millions that have mixed blood that have no idea that they have mixed blood.
    Never made sense how only ‘Black’ blood made a difference in anyone’s racial make-up. Who is the Race God?
    My 2nd cousin is in Alaska; he wrote books, makes beautiful jewelry & looks like a man of non-color, as does his brother in Czechoslovakia – his Dad was my Mom’s cousin. We share the same Irish great-grandmother. His grandfather & my grandmother were brother and sister and his older sisters (our great aunts) paid for my cousin’s granfather’ers education at Tufts College in the 1920’s where he found it easier to pass for white. Now Tufts University.
    His sister looked more like tv sitcom ‘Whitley’ (Jasmine Guy) so he didn’t want her to visit. His son (my Mom’s cousin) taught at universities & moved around a lot. His son, same name as his father, Miles, who was born in Hawaii, went to the wilds of Alaska in his early 20’s and made his home there. He’s a year or so younger than I am, 63. He also has a sister. One day I might reach out.
    My background having African, Lebanese, Irish, Cuban, Native American & Malagasy (Madagascar) ancestry makes me the blessed woman I am today.

  6. Thanks for the story about my Grandma. Momma Gladys as she was affectionately none was a great person in my life. I am the youngest of her 13 grandchildren and have heard about this story since I was a child.

  7. Thanks for such a rich history of our race. Never learned any of this in school or any history books! We need to inform our people of purpose and their right to their inheritance! Great Job!

  8. How sad! It is truly horrid that the system of racism, particularly the kind practiced here in New Orleans, of devaluing dark skin would (and perhaps still) push some people to live a pathetic lie. The worship of “Whiteness” even cause some of the wives who were dumped and left behind to feel a since of pride regarding their absent husbands. How twisted is that? In my 65 years as an obviously black man (and very proud of being so), I’ve never, ever met a White person who could come close to appreciating the hurt, the pain and the anguish black people feel at every awake moment of our lives because of the shade of our skins. And yet, I can find no place in my heart to hate any White person as I love them as any who resemble me. If the Bible is to be believed, and I subscribe to the Christian faith, Matthew, Mark and perhaps other books state that there shall be recompense for the sins inflicted upon the darker brother by the lighter brother. Matthew 20:16
    “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

    I pray that when GOD does pull out his book, that He is merciful with all who has and continue to make the lives of dark skinned people a living hell on earth.

    Thank you brother Jari for this informative and scholarly piece. Allen Kimble

    • Matthew, Mark and perhaps other books state that there shall be recompense for the sins inflicted upon the darker brother by the lighter brother. Matthew 20:16
      “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

      I pray that when GOD does pull out his book, that He is merciful with all who has and continue to make the lives of dark skinned people a living hell on earth.”

      The Bible doesn’t quite say “the sins inflicted upon the darker brother,etc……. Probably because when God pulls out HER book, which sins will be judged first and harshest – the ones inflicted by the White European upon the Black African, or the ones inflicted by the MEN on the WOMEN?

      • My response was not quite clear:

        The first quote is from Allen Kimble’s comment. My response is clearer as follows:

        Allen Kimble says: Matthew, Mark and perhaps other books state that there shall be recompense for the sins inflicted upon the darker brother by the lighter brother. Matthew 20:16
        “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

        I pray that when GOD does pull out his book, that He is merciful with all who has and continue to make the lives of dark skinned people a living hell on earth.”

        My response to Allen Kimble is: The Bible doesn’t quite say “the sins inflicted upon the darker brother,etc……. Probably because when God pulls out HER book, which sins will be judged first and harshest – the ones inflicted by the White European upon the Black African, or the ones inflicted by the MEN on the WOMEN?

        Judge not – and be careful adding your own interpretation to Scripture for it to read the way you want it to read and to say what you think God is saying.

  9. Thank you for this article. Mamma Gladys was a large part of my life and was instrumental in changing my future. I left New Orleans for New York and New York University because of Mamma Gladys’ influence on my grandmother.

    Her daughter Jeanette was one of my closest friends for years. Mamma Gladys worked for my grandmother and would come to sew after her regular job every evening. She worked for the Insurance Company by day and my grandmother in the evening and still kept her house and her children together. Jeannette came after school so her mother could keep an eye on her. She was the youngest child.

    Jeannette left New Orleans for New York. I didn’t know what happened to Mamma Gladys until about a decade ago when I heard the story of her move to California and finding her father. She would talk about him, from time to time, as she sewed with several other women, who also worked for my grandmother. They were a tight little group – Aunt Sweet, Mama Gladys and the others. They all had a hand in raising me and I am very grateful.

  10. The story of African Americans passing for White is yet to be told in a truthful way. It is too full of emotion for too many people. The jealousy of those who couldn’t pass; the hurt and grief from families left behind when a loved one disappeared into the White Community.

    The Creole Community in New Orleans had a lot of people who ‘passed’. I remember neighbors who worked in downtown New Orleans and took the bus to the end of the line and then transferred to another bus to take them to work so none of their co-workers would see where they got on or off the bus.

    Why? Because jobs in the Black community were either non-existent or so poorly paid with such high qualifications that it became a necessity. My grandmother used to buy at Keller Zander in New Orleans. To get a job there working the elevator one had to have a college degree. There were many Blacks with college degrees in the deep south who couldn’t find work in their fields or in any fields. It was a time when Blacks found jobs cleaning houses for Whites and the Blacks were far better educated, but were closed out of jobs. Black Colleges graduated many who couldn’t find work in their profession.

    I could go on with these memories for pages, but the work of documenting that period and that niche – accurately – needs to be done. And it needs to be done without judgment against those who passed.

    Our family secret is that my father was White. He married a Black woman and had to leave New Orleans to find work and then he got involved in all kinds of stuff because of that marriage. Society was not forgiving.

    We want to bury all of that and give it another kind of twist to save who – White’s from having to face the many ways Black families were destroyed because of the extreme racism that was practiced for decades in New Orleans?

    My grandfather was part Black Foot Indian and part White from his mother and father. He kept his hair close cropped and talked a lot about his “nappy” hair. Before he died, he hair grew out because it wasn’t kept as neatly as he did when he could. Everyone then discovered his roots because his hair was dead straight – a reflection of his Indian ancestors.

    What pain hair texture and color have caused so many of us and we have kept quiet about or put the blame and judgment on those who were not responsible for that bit of viciousness in our lives. Turn the light onto who the light needs to shine.
    This is only one part of the ugliness those who are light skinned have had to bear. And why? Because Whites couldn’t handle being around them and wanted them to be ostracized from what should have been their community. The Whites so involved did a good job of putting that bit of viciousness into the Black Community where we picked it up far too quickly.

  11. This is quite a resource. Young people can use this site for research! Keep it all coming….

    …..are there any reports on the St. Bernard Avenue corridor from Circle Grocery out branching out along Paris Avenue?

  12. I know a lot of people whom lived in the seventh ward in New Orleans, La. Pass for white because of jobs. People like to judge them n don’t know the story. I think sometimes they’re jelous,cause they can’t do it.

  13. I am Momma Gladys ‘ second grandchild. I remember her traveling back and forth to San Francisco to go to court. One item she had to prove Ernest was her dad was “Mildred ” her doll which he gave her before he left. When I turned 13, Momma Gladys gave me Mildred. I treasure her. Once in a while I hold her and remember the significance she meant to my grandmother. It’s difficult to fight your own uncle and grandmother to prove who you are. Momma Gladys was Awesome. And Victorious!!

  14. She didn’t have to fight but she did. This was a great story and a legacy this woman left for her children and grandchildren!

  15. Allyson Hobbs’ book is nothing but the same old combination of folklore, fiction and gossip. Good research has been done on the porous line between “mixed race” and “white” involving REAL people and court cases. The white race is not pure and never has been. Read the following: No one who “looks white” is truly “passing.”

    Legal History of the Color Line: The Rise and Triumph of the One-Drop Rule by Frank W. Sweet

  16. South Louisiana was so mixed race (African & European) that it’s difficult to find any dark complexion African Americans of South Louisiana who didn’t have ancestors who didn’t pass for white. And the majority of them were of French lineage.

    Although my Great Grandfather (of South Lousiana) was half White/French & Half African American, he never passed for White, though he could’ve. He was bi lingual & spoke fluent English & French. However, my mother told me that some of his Black American relatives did cross over & passed for White. That’s just the way it was back then.

    • The people accused of “passing for white” WERE white and had every reason to claim their rightful European heritage instead of pretending to be superior, prettier varieties of “Negroes.” Those who resigned themselves to Negro status deserve no praise. They were just too afraid to take the initiative.

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