Mexico: The Land of God and Liberty

The historical record does not reveal when exactly William Ellis first ventured across the border into Mexico. Most likely, it took place when he was a young man, employed as a Spanish translator for William McNamara, a merchant in his hometown of Victoria, Texas. This position introduced Ellis to some of the fundamental features of passing, for to be a successful translator, he had to learn in essence to speak in the voice of McNamara, one of his community’s most prominent white businessmen. But it also required regular trips to Mexico, where McNamara often bought cowhides, cotton, and other agricultural goods.

For McNamara, going to Mexico was purely a business undertaking. For Ellis, however, it offered a vantage point onto a country without the rigidly demarcated color line of his native Texas. The opportunity to cross the borderline and escape the constant oppression of Jim Crow, to speak Spanish and take on a different persona proved a powerful draw for Ellis, setting in motion his life-long engagement with Mexico.

Even as he endeavored to keep his background a secret to all but his most trusted friends and family members, Ellis undertook several campaigns designed to make Mexico accessible to other African Americans. Most involved what was known in the language of the day as “colonization”: the establishment of settlements of immigrants. This was a particularly popular policy in Mexico during the Porfiriato (the presidency of Porfirio Díaz, 1876-1911), as Mexico sought to modernize by attracting skilled immigrants who, it was thought, could help develop the Mexican Republic’s rich natural resources.

Although Mexico insisted that it was untouched by the racism of its northern neighbor, it sought to whiten Mexico’s population by attracting European immigrants (ideally, Catholic ones from countries such as Italy). Ellis was the leader of those trying to encourage Mexican politicians to alter this policy and to try instead to attract African American colonists. In 1889, Ellis negotiated a contract with the Mexican government that allowed him to establish colonies of African Americans in several Mexican states. Five years later, he signed a contract with the Tlahualilo Corporation, the owners of a vast hacienda in Durango, that promised to bring thousands of African American sharecroppers to work in the company’s newly irrigated cotton fields.

Both of Ellis’s agreements triggered impassioned discussion in Mexico. While some Mexicans welcomed skilled African American immigrants, others believed that their nation was already struggling to incorporate its large indigenous population (a position that overlooked the fact that peoples of African descent were not newcomers but had in fact been living in Mexico since the 1500s).

The Spanish-language documents here capture several key facets of in this often-overlooked history of African American immigration to Mexico that Ellis helped set in motion: the debate over ratifying Ellis’s colonization contract in the Mexican senate in 1889; newspaper coverage of the 1889 contract negotiations; and press reports on Ellis’s attempt in 1895 to relocate African Americans to the Tlahualilo.

Ellis’s effort to settle thousands of African Americans in Tlahualilo also attracted widespread attention in the U.S. press.Many at the time were acutely aware that should Ellis’s experiment prove a success, a large proportion of the U.S.’s African American population might migrate south to Mexico.When the colony in Tlahualilo fractured, leading many of the colonists to try to cross the border back to the U.S., white journalists were quick to draw what they deemed the appropriate “lesson” of this entire episode: African Americans were better treated in the U.S. than they had previously realized, so they should not complain about their conditions or go looking for alternatives elsewhere.