The Strange Career of William Ellis: Texas Slave to Mexican Millionaire

June 28, 2016
Karl Jacoby Borderland History Columbia Professor

The odds were certainly against William Henry Ellis, who was born into slavery on a Texas cotton plantation near the Mexico border.

But a combination of sheer moxie, an ability to speak Spanish and an olive skin allowed Ellis to reinvent himself. By the turn of the 20th century, he was Guillermo Enrique Eliseo, a successful Mexican entrepreneur with an office on Wall Street, an apartment on Central Park West and business dealings with companies and corporations halfway around the world.

His unusual life story is told in a new book titled The Strange Career of William Ellis: The Texas Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire by Karl Jacoby, a professor in the history department and the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. Ellis “learned how to be what people wanted him to be, and how to be sure that people would see what they want to see,” Jacoby said.

Karl Jacoby book William Ellis bookJacoby came across this larger-than-life character 20 years ago, when “he introduced himself to me in the archives.” One of the scholar’s research interests is the U.S.-Mexico border. “Even though it’s geographically peripheral, it’s actually quite central to both countries,” he said. “The borderlands become very important to how ideas of race are shaped in both countries. All these questions about immigration and who is an American get played out at the border.”

When Jacoby was a graduate student at Yale, his advisor encouraged him to look in old U.S. State Department records for anything interesting regarding the border. As Jacoby perused the pages and pages of dry documents, he came across an 1895 report about a businessman trying to bring African American sharecroppers from Alabama to work on Mexican plantations.

That’s unusual, he thought; everyone thinks of emigration going in the other direction. But it made sense; in the 1890s, southern states were instituting Jim Crow laws and some African Americans were looking farther south for freedom since Mexico had no formal segregation. The relocation effort failed, but Jacoby wanted to know who the man was behind the idea.

The difficulty of accessing data, much of it on microfilm, made a thorough search difficult, so Jacoby put aside this intriguing character, William Ellis, and wrote other works on border history, including Shadows at Dawn: A Borderlands Massacre and the Violence of History.

Ellis was hard to find for good reason. He was in the midst of transforming himself into Eliseo, erasing his blackness in the eyes of government officials and census takers, while maintaining it in other settings. He was aided by the advent of the railroads, which could whisk a man away from his past. “He’s a self-made man in the sense that he represents the rags-to-riches story that American culture just loves,” said Jacoby. “But he’s also self-made in the sense that he’s making up this identity for himself, and not just accepting the identity other people try to force on him.”

In the 1880s, Ellis moved to San Antonio, then the center of commercial trade with Mexico, and found a job facilitating these exchanges. Around the same time, he began introducing himself as Guillermo Enrique Eliseo, the Spanish version of his name. “For a while he has these two separate lives,” Jacoby said. “In San Antonio he’s a Mexican, and elsewhere he’s an African American.”

Not long after his sharecropper plan came to nothing, locals realized that Ellis was not Mexican; the city directory then put a C by his name, denoting “colored.” He disappeared, grew a large mustache, straightened his hair and bought an elegant wardrobe, later surfacing in New York City as a Mexican businessman at the height of the Gilded Age.

As trade opened up during the Mexican dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, Eliseo, who one State Department official at the time described as having a “hypnotic power of persuasion,” became a millionaire. He gave investors access to in-demand Mexican goods such as copper, a crucial mineral for electrification projects; rubber, for industrial uses; and vanilla for the delicious novelty, ice cream.

“One of the points I’m trying to get at in the book is that ultimately William Ellis moved between this African American identity, and this Mexican identity, which is usually treated as ‘passing’ for another race,” Jacoby said. “In the 19th century, a person could only be one or the other, but for Ellis, these identities were equally real.”

By the turn of the century, Ellis was one of the first African Americans on Wall Street. “He was born a slave in poverty and ends up living on Central Park West and having an office on Wall Street right next to J.P. Morgan,” said Jacoby. “It’s another reminder of how race is ultimately a fiction that we tell ourselves to divide people for one another. His story suggests how fluid race can truly be.”

—By Walyce Almeida