History seems to remember those who believed more than others in their own quest for power and immortality.
Perhaps Napoleon expressed it best when he said, “Opportunities? I make opportunities!”
I asked history professor Karl Jacoby, author of “The Strange Career of William Ellis the Texas Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire”, why it was important to tell Ellis’, story.
“Ellis,” Jacoby explained, “seemed to be impossible and captivating with an element of surprise.” Speaking English, yet also a Spanish-speaker, Ellis, the son of former slaves, changed his name to Guillermo Enrique Eliseo. His family was listed in the 1870 census as mulattos. Few knew his father Charles and his mother Mary were former slaves who assumed the surname “Ellis” and migrated on foot to Texas.
Ellis and his siblings were born after the Confederacy collapsed in 1865. Jacoby’s detailed description of the Civil War’s last defeat at Palmito Ranch on May 13 of that year vividly examines Texas’ re-admittance to the Union and plans to turn Mexico into “the new Southern cotton plantation.”
In his 20s, Ellis changed his name to Elisio and rose to prominence in Mexico, America and Ethiopia, primarily because he owned businesses and represented governments, becoming a Mexican millionaire during America’s Gilded Age. Denver’s Evening Post asserted, “Eliseo was a ‘wealthy Mexican’ — in fact, without doubt the wealthiest.” He was embraced by Wall Street, where he had an office. He also had an apartment on upscale Central Park West in New York City.
But for Ellis, “Elisio,” Mexico, not New York, proved to be “the promised land.” Although Jacoby said he was unfamiliar with the pre-Columbian Olmec, which scholars throughout the latter part of the 19th-century and early 20th-century contended emigrated to Mexico from Africa, a theory that today’s mainstream scholars dismiss, I believe it was possible that Ellis was aware of this connection in Mexico, and that, in turn, motivated him to start his emigration movement to relocate African Americans to Mexico. There the former slaves were promised freedom, work and economic opportunity. By 1889, thousands of working-class African Americans wanted to participate in the emigration movement engineered by Ellis and his partners, who negotiated a contract that passed the Mexican Senate. But in March 1891, internal political changes in Mexico brought the end of the emigration movement, and Ellis’ supporter, General Pacheco, died a few months later, resulting in Ellis’ contract being revoked.
Unfortunately, neither Mexico’s nor Wall Street’s power base could prevent Ellis’ world from crumbling. Simultaneously, his “Pan-African” Ethiopian projects, lawsuits and health collapsed. Ellis died in September 1923 in Mexico City’s American Hospital with less than $100 in his pocket. He left his loyal Caucasian wife, Maude Sherwood, only $5,000 and businesses that she could not collect on. She moved to Mexico with their four children.
Ellis’ extraordinary achievements should not be slighted based on the amount of money he lost, but by all that he gained during his lifetime. I asked Jacoby what motivated Ellis.
“He wanted to help his family,” he said. “He wanted to escape Jim Crow Laws. Throughout his life, Ellis maintained close to his African-American family and his community even though he could ‘pass.’”
From any historical vantage point, “The Strange Career of William Ellis, The Texas Slave Who Became A Mexican Millionaire” depicts a gallant, handsome and suave Guillermo Enrique Eliseo, who crossed color lines and borders being a “braver than life figure” and captured the attention of historian Karl Jacoby with his “almost impossible” story about Reconstruction in the US and Mexico.