Across the Border

Across the Border

A new biography of William Henry Ellis reminds us how much we still don’t know about the elusive history of racial subterfuge in America.


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.

In fact, Ellis never strayed completely from his interest in the advancement of African Americans, and he was connected to Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, an advocate of black emigration to Africa. Ellis’s interests, though, were oriented toward a different geography. On two different occasions, he was involved in a project to relocate black sharecroppers from the American South to Mexico, then desperate to attract immigrant labor. The first venture, a contract with the Mexican government itself, never came to fruition, but Ellis’s second, in which he and a partner signed an agreement with a private company, resulted in more than 800 African Americans moving in 1895 to a hacienda in northern Mexico.

Interviewed en route by the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Ellis stated that he hoped to bring a total of 10,000 black laborers to Mexico, and held himself out as a kind of public-spirited entrepreneur. “While I admit that there is with me a sort of philanthropic spirit in the matter,” he said, “still, with land which produces a bale of cotton to the acre, and seventy-five bushels of corn, we hope to make something out of the business as well as the negro.”

Unfortunately, neither Ellis nor the emigrants made much. The former sharecroppers resented conditions that too closely resembled a state of bondage, and when they began to be afflicted with a mysterious illness, they started leaving. On their return journey, many would be held in quarantine just across the Texas border, in miserable conditions, and over 50 died of smallpox. It was a brutal conclusion to Ellis’s dream of marrying his quest for profit with the deliverance of African Americans from the harsh conditions of sharecropping.

* * *

How did Ellis respond to this outcome? Jacoby does not tell us because he cannot say; at least, he cannot do so definitively. Ellis didn’t leave a diary or trove of letters explaining his decision to pass as Mexican, or the thinking behind his various business ventures. So The Strange Career of William Ellis is a work of admirable sleuthing in which Jacoby has assembled a portrait of a man who deliberately sought to cover his own tracks. In Mexico, Ellis was an American citizen of indeterminate race. According to Jacoby, while traveling in Mexico, Ellis would sometimes hint that he was the illegitimate son of railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington. In the United States, he was an upper-class Latin American who dressed the part, with a dapper waxed mustache and three-piece suit. During the Cuban War of Independence, Ellis even planted a newspaper article claiming that he had led an insurgent regiment of Mexican soldiers into battle—and soon found himself being described as “an enterprising Cuban, who has been successful as a banker and business man in Cuba and Mexico.”

Ellis’s public career was built on a peculiar loophole in the American racial order of the late 19th century. Near the border, Mexican-born Tejanos and their descendants faced the kind of widespread, and often violent, discrimination that African Americans suffered throughout the United States. But farther away, Mexicans and Mexican Americans could emphasize their Spanish lineage and be treated as something more exotic—and more on a par with whites—than a domestic racial other. Equally important, the law classified people of Mexican descent as white, a practice extending back to the citizenship conferred on Mexicans by the 1836 Constitution of the Republic of Texas and the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. In fact, in 1897, while Ellis’s business career was in full swing, a Texas federal court ruled that Mexican Americans must be classified as whites in their applications for citizenship and voting, a decision that continues to affect everything from US census forms to Latino identity politics. By the time of that ruling, Ellis was far enough from his Texas home that he may not have even noticed it: He had already slipped quietly into whiteness.

Was Ellis a brilliant subversive thumbing his nose at the ideology of white supremacy, a con artist looking to make a quick buck, or both? Jacoby is smart enough not to say—or perhaps he’s savvy enough to realize that this is not the right question. As in Shadows at Dawn, his earlier book on the Camp Grant Massacre of Apache Indians, Jacoby’s talent lies not just in uncovering forgotten histories, but also in using them to tease out the larger economic and political forces shaping the culture of a region. Throughout The Strange Career of William Ellis, he shows how a long history of traffic across the US-Mexican border has intertwined the economies and politics of both countries—to say nothing of the lives of their citizens. At a moment when much of the United States is being summoned to fury about that Mexican influence, Jacoby reminds us that trying to erect ineradicable barriers between the two nations has always been a fool’s errand.

Ellis’s talent lay in matching the fiction of his frontier identity to the economic opportunities created in the wake of the United States’ particular form of imperialism at the turn of the 20th century. In spite what he may have claimed about the Cuban War of Independence, he never arrived anywhere with a conquering army. His weapons were the limited partnership and the laws of incorporation; the prizes he sought were not territory or political gain, but lucrative deals tied to the construction of Mexico’s infrastructure of modernity. Ellis was a particular kind of servant of empire, a member of a transnational elite that aided the flow of capital from north to south and back again.

For two decades, scholars of American studies have been trying to understand the relationship between race and empire in the history of the United States—arguing that domestic and international hierarchies of color have reinforced each other in a vicious cycle of white-supremacist capitalism. Ellis found a path to success by turning this dynamic to his own advantage. He made his point of origin as ambiguous as his race, presenting himself as an American when traveling abroad and as someone slightly foreign when in the United States. By always being from somewhere else, he could be the ideal partner for anyone looking for a helping hand across the US-Mexico border. And he was fortunate to live at a time when the number of such people was growing. In 1880, Jacoby writes, US trade with Mexico amounted to $15 million of economic activity; by 1910, it had expanded to $166 million, a tenfold increase over the time of Ellis’s early adulthood.

In the early 1900s, Ellis—or Eliseo—had an office on Wall Street, where he was the ostensible president of a raft of companies doing business in Mexico and the Caribbean, firms like the Mexico and Toluca Light and Power Company, the Eliseo Gold and Silver Mining Company, the Cuban Central Unidad Sugar Company, and the Mexican Securities and Construction Company. By the end of the decade, he would license a patent for a new process for refining the sap of Mexican trees into rubber and secure concessions to construct a series of hydropower dams west of Mexico City.

In that same decade, Ellis completed his fictive identity as an elegant businessman from south of the border. He married a white stenographer, Maude Sherwood, from working-class Jersey City; issued a press release claiming that she was a descendant of British nobility; and then installed his family in a lily-white neighborhood of Mount Vernon, New York. William and Maude would name their first child after the father: Guillermo Jr.

But Ellis never pulled away from the African diaspora entirely. He became fascinated, in particular, with Ethiopia, also known at that time as Abyssinia, a kingdom renowned among African Americans as the only African nation to have successfully repulsed a European invasion (by Italy). Its autonomy was augmented by its relative isolation: The journey to the capital, Addis Ababa, required three weeks of travel by camel caravan.

Ellis sensed an opportunity, and he made the trip to court the country’s emperor, Menelik II, just ahead of an official US delegation. It’s not entirely clear what transpired when Ellis reached the Ethiopian court, but when he returned to New York, he claimed to have obtained “full concessions from the King” to develop diamond mines, experiment with the cultivation of cotton, and establish a “Royal Bank of Abyssinia.” As with his plans to resettle black sharecroppers in Mexico, Ellis seemed keen to unite a project of racial uplift with his own financial interests.

And as with the Mexican-colonization schemes, there would be very little financial payoff for Ellis. The climax came when, on a return journey, the unexpected death of the official envoy left Ellis in the position of delivering the first ratified treaty between the United States and Ethiopia to Menelik and his court. Ellis returned to the United States with a trove of exotic animals—a zebra, baboons, a lioness—for the National Zoo, but the lucre of trade never materialized. What he did gain was access: Ellis personally debriefed the State Department and President Theodore Roosevelt; later, he traded on his diplomatic reputation to arrange for introductions to such figures as Andrew Carnegie and Robert E. Peary.

* * *

One of the most tantalizing threads in Jacoby’s biography is the evidence that the African-American intelligentsia—or at least many members of it—recognized Ellis’s racial charade for what it was. After his return from Ethiopia, two different black playwrights in New York staged musicals that incorporated elements of his journey. And Ellis maintained ties to black politics: He delivered a speech at a dinner for Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute and engaged in a sporadic correspondence with W.E.B. Du Bois about Ethiopia. He wrote to Roosevelt about the horrors of lynching, and sent a telegram to President Taft pleading for federal protection of African Americans being subjected to the violence of white mobs in Texas. In choosing his life as Guillermo Enrique Eliseo, Ellis may have crossed the color line, but he seemingly didn’t want to leave it entirely behind him.

What is missing from Jacoby’s book is a cri de coeur from Ellis, some documentary evidence that reveals his master plan or evokes a deeper ambivalence about his choice—like the choices of Krazy Kat creator George Herriman, the critic and essayist Anatole Broyard, and so many others—to live as a white man. The recesses of those inner lives would be left to the novelists: Johnson, Nella Larsen, Ralph Ellison, and others. Instead, Jacoby is left with a pile of obituaries that followed Ellis’s death in 1923. White newspapers from New York to Atlanta ran them, but so did black newspapers like The New York Age and The Chicago Defender. Finally, in his death, Ellis could be publicly acknowledged as a “colored man.” Reading them now, the descriptions furnished by the black press resemble not only Johnson’s ex-colored man but, even more, Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby—an adventurer achieving financial success among men and women who knew nothing of his true story. As The Dallas Express put it: “From the fact that his life was spectacular, filled with strivings in a big way among the greatest of the world, some degree of satisfaction must be ours in realizing that he was of us.”

In another turn reminiscent of fiction, Ellis’s wealth would also prove illusory. By the time of his passing at age 59, he had spent too many years chasing the perfect deal to leave his widow and children with much more than debt. Even murkier is the question of what we’re to make of his cultural legacy. Jacoby urges us to see Ellis as a trickster who trangressed the boundaries of nation and race, turning obstacles into opportunities. It’s a weak interpretation of such a complicated, even bewildering, biographical subject, but it’s certainly more appealing than treating him as a tragic figure, alienated from his identity and shuttling between countries in search of a home. Either way, it’s hard not to see how Ellis participated in his own erasure from the historical record. He found a way simultaneously to obscure and exploit his own origins, to live in a space that the new American empire created—a zone that demanded bravado and risk, but that didn’t check anyone’s credentials too closely at the door.

Reading Jacoby’s lucid, careful reconstruction of the world that William Henry Ellis inhabited, it’s tempting to search for a usable fable for our own time, when racialized bodies and national borders have become the subjects of ferocious scrutiny and surveillance. However, it is hard to translate Ellis’s biography into either a didactic example or a cautionary tale. He led a life that transcended borders and also seemed ruled by them—and his quiet genius for manipulation left a silence in his wake that Jacoby ultimately respects. As Ellis’s contemporary James Weldon Johnson understood, sometimes it is not what we recognize that matters, but what we do not.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that moves the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories to readers like you.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy