Life: A Story Lost and Found

Born into slavery in the small town of Victoria, Texas, William Ellis would travel far during his life of reinvention, first relocating to San Antonio, then New York and Mexico City.   Along the way, William Ellis would rename himself, adopting the alternative personas of Guillermo Ellis and Guillermo Eliseo, and portray himself as Mexican, Cuban, and even Hawaiian.  If these actions required him to rewrite much of his life story, they also allowed him to evade the color line that segregationists were drawing through countless facets of American life during the Gilded Age in an effort to separate whites from Blacks in everything from schools to trains to graveyards.

Ellis’s story thus unites the micro and the macro, bringing together an individual story of racial passing with a larger account of the evolution of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.  In so doing, however, it calls into question some of our prevailing understandings of passing, as well as of race in the U.S. and Mexico.  Rather than presenting himself as white, for example, Ellis opted instead to embrace a Latino identity, a category that existed at the fringes of whiteness for much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In place of isolating himself entirely from the African American community, as many passers did, Ellis maintained a connection with his family throughout his life and even participated in African American politics as a disciple of Norris Wright Cuney and Bishop Henry Turner.  And as much as Ellis’s remarkable adventures in the U.S. demonstrated the unexpected porousness of the color line, his experiences in Mexico, where he served as the leading advocate of Black colonization throughout the nineteenth century, called into question Mexico’s image of itself as a place untouched by the racism of its northern neighbor.

Famous (or, at least few might claim, infamous) in his own time, Ellis slipped into obscurity after his death, his life story falling into the cracks that divide U.S. and Mexican history as well as Black and Latino history from one another.  Through a combination of new forms of digital scholarship into census data and newspaper databases with family lore and papers, The Strange Career of William Ellis attempts to restore Ellis to his rightful place as an important historical figure in the U.S. and Mexico alike.  Indeed, Ellis was in many respects the quintessential Gilded Age figure, the self-made man.  Not only did he ascend from poverty to wealth, becoming arguably the first Black on Wall Street; he also remade his ethnicity, transforming how others saw him to use their preconceptions and stereotypes to his advantage.