When, in 1912, James Weldon Johnson published his sly and searching novel of racial passing, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, he did so anonymously, leaving readers to assume it was a factual account of a light-skinned African American crossing the color line to travel in the world of whiteness. In the aftermath of its publication, Johnson took pleasure in listening to others puzzle over its authorship. He even had “the rarer experience,” as he later described it, of being introduced to someone else claiming to have written the book. The story, it seems, was too good not to be true.
In the long era of Jim Crow, fact could be as strange, if not stranger, than fiction. At precisely the same moment that Johnson was enjoying his literary ruse, a fellow New Yorker calling himself Guillermo Enrique Eliseo was frantically trying to keep his financial interests in Mexico afloat as that country convulsed under wave after wave of political revolt. With each new regime, the businessman sought to curry favor and press for new investment opportunities, but the changes were so rapid that he struggled to find the proper currency in which to pay his taxes. Many of those who knew Eliseo presumed him to be a Mexican from near the US border (though others thought he was Cuban, or even Hawaiian), a well-traveled gentleman active in Latin America’s quest for modernization.
Had Johnson known Eliseo, he might have nodded in recognition. Eliseo had been born as an African-American slave on a South Texas cotton plantation in 1864, just as the entire social order of the region was being transformed by the conclusion of the Civil War. Over the course of a lifetime, Eliseo—or, as he was more commonly known, William Henry Ellis—built both elaborate fictions and an impressive network of business interests that spanned North America and beyond. His biography is the subject of a new book by historian Karl Jacoby, with a title that gives away its story: The Strange Career of William Ellis: The Texas Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire. Ellis’s life and Jacoby’s reconstruction of it remind us how much we still don’t know about the elusive history of racial subterfuge in America.
Ellis often described himself as being born on the “Mexican frontier”—a designation that was close enough to the truth to be plausible. In fact, he was born on the Texas side of the border, in the small town of Victoria, to enslaved parents who remained in South Texas after Emancipation. He was fortunate enough to attend school into his teens and, just as important for his future, to learn Spanish. By the age of 24, he had moved to San Antonio and was advertising as a dealer in cotton, hides, and wool—and telling new acquaintances that he had been born on the other side of the border. Ellis, he explained, was simply a convenient translation of his birth name, Eliseo. Notably, the San Antonio city directory printed his name without the “C” that designated its “colored” residents.
With his olive skin and deep reservoir of self-confidence, Ellis emerges in Jacoby’s telling as a figure capable of talking his way into and out of situations that would have undone lesser men. In the early 1890s, for instance, he ran for the Texas state legislature as the Republican nominee to represent a district that would have clearly known about his African-American parentage, even as he still presented himself as an ethnic Mexican in San Antonio.