The Strange Career of William Ellis

Posted in Biography, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive, Mexico, Passing, Texas, United States, Videos on 2017-04-15 23:40Z by Steven

The Strange Career of William Ellis

C-SPAN
2017-04-08

Karl Jacoby talked about his book, The Strange Career of William Ellis: The Texas Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire. He spoke at the 5th annual San Antonio Book Festival.

Watch the video (00:45:45) here.

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William Ellis: The Former Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire

Posted in Audio, Biography, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Interviews, Media Archive, Mexico, Passing, United States on 2017-03-31 00:50Z by Steven

William Ellis: The Former Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire

Houston Matters
Houston, Texas
2017-03-29

Guillermo Eliseo was a wealthy Mexican banker and broker who lived in New York City in the early 20th Century.

But, Eliseo had a secret. He was actually born into slavery on a cotton plantation in southern Texas, and his real name was William Ellis.

Maggie Martin talks with historian and author Karl Jacoby, who wrote a book about Ellis. It’s called The Strange Career of William Ellis: the Texas Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire.

Jacoby talks about why Ellis made the move to Mexico, the ways his secret life cut him off from his family and the lessons from his life.

Listen to the interview here (00:09:05).

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

Posted in Articles, Biography, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive, Mexico, Passing, Texas, United States on 2017-03-12 01:45Z by Steven

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

Columbia News: Office of Communications and Public Affairs
Columbia University, New York, New York
2016-06-28


Karl Jacoby

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…

Read the entire article here.

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Biography: ‘The Strange Career of William Ellis: The Texas Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire,’ by Karl Jacoby

Posted in Articles, Biography, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive, Mexico, Passing, Texas, United States on 2016-07-22 18:41Z by Steven

Biography: ‘The Strange Career of William Ellis: The Texas Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire,’ by Karl Jacoby

The Dallas Morning News
2016-06-24

Karen M. Thomas, Professor of Journalism
Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas

From all accounts, Guillermo Enrique Eliseo commanded attention. The elegantly dressed Mexican-born Wall Street baron in Gilded Age Manhattan was known for his gold watch, fine taste and ability to strike business deals on both sides of the border. He also had a huge secret.

Eliseo began life not on a Mexican hacienda but across the border on a Texas plantation where he was born into slavery as William Henry Ellis. How he transformed himself into Eliseo is the topic of The Strange Career of William Ellis.

Karl Jacoby is a stellar researcher, and the topic is fascinating. He ferrets out Ellis’ tale of reinvention from historical documents, news accounts and Ellis’ personal material, including letters to his family. Where records are scarce, such as for the years Ellis was a slave on a Victoria plantation, Jacoby instead turns to what is known about American slavery itself. He describes Texas’ role in trying to keep cotton as king and what life was like in Victoria, a town close to the U.S. and Mexican borders, in the 1800s. By doing so, Jacoby is able to extrapolate Ellis’ experience, motivation and preparation for ultimately redefining his personal racial boundaries

Read the entire review here.

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Across the Border

Posted in Articles, Biography, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive, Mexico, Passing, Texas, United States on 2016-07-22 14:40Z by Steven

Across the Border

The Nation
2016-07-21

Michael A. Elliott, Professor of English
Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia


William Henry Ellis, (Photo courtesy of Fanny Johnson-Griffin)

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…

Read the entire article here.

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A Tale of Racial Passing and the U.S.-Mexico Border

Posted in Articles, Biography, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive, Mexico, Passing, Texas, United States on 2016-07-20 21:18Z by Steven

A Tale of Racial Passing and the U.S.-Mexico Border

The New Yorker
2016-07-20

Jonathan Blitzer


The African-American businessman William Ellis, pictured here around the year 1900, frequently passed as Mexican.
COURTESY FANNY JOHNSON-GRIFFIN

Some people knew him as William Ellis, and others as Guillermo Eliseo. He could be Mexican, Cuban, or even Hawaiian, depending on whom you asked. Everyone seemed to agree that he was spectacularly wealthy and successful. In the dime-store Who’s Who books that were popular at the turn of the twentieth century, his name, in one form or another, appeared regularly. He was a “Banker, Broker, and Miner,” who came to New York from the “Mexican frontier,” an exemplar of the self-made man.

It was one of his life’s many ironies that the pedigreed gatekeepers of American high commerce celebrated his origin story without knowing a thing about his actual origins. William Ellis was born a slave, in Texas, in the eighteen-sixties. Like at least some of his siblings, he was light-skinned, but with a key difference: on the city census that recorded blackness with a “c” (for “colored”), Ellis was somehow spared the label. In his early twenties, he got into the cotton trade after a brief apprenticeship with a white local businessman, shuttling back and forth to the cities in northern Mexico. He started telling people that he was Mexican, and that he had anglicized his name for their convenience, as Karl Jacoby recounts in his fascinating new book, “The Strange Career of William Ellis.” Having grown up just south of San Antonio, along the border, Ellis came to speak fluent Spanish. He quickly grasped the possibilities of bilingualism in the race-riven landscape of the Reconstruction-era South…

Read the entire article here.

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The Strange Career of William Ellis: The Texas Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire

Posted in Biography, Books, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive, Mexico, Monographs, Passing, Slavery, United States on 2016-06-17 20:31Z by Steven

The Strange Career of William Ellis: The Texas Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire

W. W. Norton & Company
2016-06-14
368 pages
6.1 × 9.3 in
Hardcover ISBN: 978-0-393-23925-6

Karl Jacoby, Professor of History
Columbia University, New York, New York

A prize-winning historian tells a new story of the black experience in America through the life of a mysterious entrepreneur.

A black child born in the twilight of slavery, William Henry Ellis inhabited a world of fraught, ambiguous racial categories on the anarchic border between the United States and Mexico. He adopted the name Guillermo Enrique Eliseo and passed as a Mexican: traveling as Hispanic in first-class train berths, staying in the finest hotels, and eating in leading restaurants. A shrewd businessman, he became fabulously wealthy and found himself involved in scandalous trials, unexpected disappearances, and diplomatic controversies. Constantly switching identities, Eliseo was a genius at identifying and exploiting the porousness of the color line and the border line.

Through Ellis’s picaresque biography, Karl Jacoby presents an intriguing narrative set in a secret and ever-changing world. The Strange Career of William Ellis reinterprets the borderlands, showing how U.S. and Mexican histories intertwined during Reconstruction, and he offers new insight into the arbitrary and evolving definitions of race in America.

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Texas slave passes as Mexican millionaire

Posted in Articles, Biography, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive, Mexico, Passing, Texas, United States on 2016-06-12 01:25Z by Steven

Texas slave passes as Mexican millionaire

San Antonio Express-News
San Antonio, Texas
2016-06-11

Joe O’Connell

Former slave passes as Mexican millionaire

Historian Karl Jacoby was driving near the Texas-Mexico border when he was stopped by the U.S. Border Patrol, the agency charged with keeping Mexicans out of the United States.

He explained, to their dismay, that he was writing a book about a Texan who had tried desperately to cross into Mexico.

In the completed book, “The Strange Career of William Ellis,” Jacoby has pieced together of the life a former slave who transformed himself into a wealthy Mexican.

Ellis was born to a mixed-race mother on a cotton plantation in Victoria one year before slavery ended, but found transformation in San Antonio, then the hub of commerce between the United States and Mexico.

“He was born ‘in between’ in multiple ways,” Jacoby said. “There was this fault line between slavery and freedom and what that might mean. There was also a fault line between the United States and Mexico.”

Both nations were courting immigrants as business boomed in the Gilded Age at the end of the 19th century…

Read the entire article here.

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Leaving to learn

Posted in Articles, Biography, Campus Life, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive, Mexico, Passing, Slavery, United States on 2015-12-03 02:37Z by Steven

Leaving to learn

Columbia Daily Spectator
2015-12-02

Claire Liebmann


Courtesy of Karl Jacoby

Several years ago while browsing newspaper clippings online, Karl Jacoby, a history professor at Columbia, came across the story of William Ellis—a Texan slave who built a million dollar fortune while posing as a Mexican millionaire in New York, essentially hacking the system of American expansionism and oppression.

Tracking Ellis as he took on different names and personas was difficult: Ellis deliberately introduced falsehoods into the historical record to ensure that his racial passing was accepted by the broader society, but Jacoby stuck with it. Years later, this chance encounter with Ellis’ story would come to drive his personal historical research. Undertaking a yearlong leave of absence, he pursued his interest in reclaiming untold narratives, working on his book The Strange Career of William Ellis: The Texas Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire.

Jacoby’s academic career is driven by his interest in complicating comfortable historical narratives. This process of reinvention and rediscovery depends on another kind of separation from the establishment: Jacoby’s reliance on his leave of absence as a means of promoting academic innovation…

Read the entire article here.

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National Affairs: Who Would Be King

Posted in Arts, Biography, Caribbean/Latin America, Media Archive, Mexico, Passing, Slavery, United States on 2015-12-02 22:39Z by Steven

National Affairs: Who Would Be King

Time
1923-10-08

Word came to the U. S. that William Henry Ellis, who preferred to style himself Guillermo Enrique Eliseo, died in Mexico City. Mr. Ellis was one of the most remarkable men who ever acted as agent for the State Department. He was known chiefly for the famous incident in which he delivered a commercial Treaty from this country to King Menelik of Abyssinia. But his unusual history began much earlier.

He was born in Victoria, Tex., in 1864 and claimed to be of Cuban parentage, on account of which he used the Spanish form of…

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