The Strange Career of William Ellis
The Texas Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire
W.W. Norton 2016
To his contemporaries in Gilded Age Manhattan, Guillermo Eliseo was a fantastically wealthy Mexican, the proud owner of a luxury apartment overlooking Central Park, a busy Wall Street office, and scores of mines and haciendas in Mexico. But for all his obvious riches and his elegant appearance, Eliseo was also the possessor of a devastating secret: he was not, in fact, from Mexico at all. Rather, he had begun life as a slave named William Ellis, born on a cotton plantation in southern Texas during the waning years of King Cotton. After emancipation, Ellis, capitalizing on the Spanish he learned during his childhood along the Mexican border and his ambivalent appearance, engaged in a virtuoso act of reinvention. Eliseo’s success in crossing the color line, however, brought heightened scrutiny in its wake as he became the intimate of political and business leaders on both sides of the US-Mexico border. The Strange Career of William Ellis: The Texas Slave who Became a Millionaire (W.W. Norton, 2016) reads like a novel but offers fresh insights on the history of the Reconstruction era, the US-Mexico border, and the abiding riddle of race. At a moment when the United States is deepening its connections with Latin America and recognizing that race is more than simply black or white, Ellis’s story could not be more timely or important. Karl Jacoby is a Professor of History at Columbia University.
Lori A. Flores is an Assistant Professor of History at Stony Brook University (SUNY) and the author of Grounds for Dreaming: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the California Farmworker Movement (Yale, 2016). You can find her at www.loriaflores.com, [email protected], or hanging around Brooklyn.