The writing of the book The Strange Career of William Ellis would have been impossible without the assistance of the members of William Ellis’s extended family, both in the U.S. and in Mexico. Because William Ellis was constantly reinventing himself in his travels across the color line and the borderline, it was only those closest to him—his siblings, parents, wife, and children—who possessed anything close to an accurate knowledge of his life. These family stories were in turn passed down to subsequent generations, and these relatives of William Ellis were generous enough to share their family lore with the historian Karl Jacoby. The stories complimented, complicated, and expanded upon the scattered records relating to William Ellis available in the archive, allowing a deeper understanding of his remarkable existence.
The materials here allow a few glimpses of the multiple discussions over many years with family members that went into the making of The Strange Career of William Ellis. The first is a series of conversations with William Ellis’s grandnieces, Susie Williams, Joan Williams, and Fanny Griffith-Johnson, filmed in October 2011 in the kitchen of Susie’s home in Altadena, California. (There is also a transcription of these conversations, available here.)
After the book’s publication, family members participated in several public presentations related to the book.One of the first took place at the University of California in Los Angeles in 2016 and included family members from both sides of the border (in addition to Ellis’s grandnieces, Susie, Joan, and Fanny, Ellis’s grandchildren, Leticia, Andrea, and Peter participated).Also in 2016, Ellis’s great-grandnephew, Chip Williams, participated in a presentation at the University of Oregon that also featured the historian Marsha Weisiger, a descendant of the Weisiger family that had enslaved William Ellis and his parents in Frankfort, Kentucky, and Victoria, Texas.