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.”
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.”]
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.