William Henry Ellis was born a slave in Victoria, Texas, in 1864 — a year before slavery was abolished in the state.
Ellis was able to take advantage of his proximity to the border — and his light complexion — to reinvent himself as Mexican businessman, Guillermo Enrique Eliseo.
Karl Jacoby, author of “The Strange Career of William Ellis: The Texas Slave who became a Mexican Millionaire,” said plantation owners in Kentucky, where Ellis’ parents and grandparents were born, saw opportunity in Texas cotton.
“There’s a real contradiction in slavery in Texas, which is to say, there’s all of this great land for growing cotton,” Jacoby said, “but as you’re expanding slavery in Texas, you’re also coming closer and closer to the border with Mexico. And across the border in Mexico, if enslaved people can emancipate by getting across the border into Mexico, they can be free.”
And Victoria, Texas, where Ellis’ family eventually relocated, was located less than 200 miles to the Mexican border.
Victoria was “where the Mexican ranching frontier meets the Anglo cotton plantation belt,” Jacoby said, “and it’s that one place that they overlap because it’s the only town in Texas that’s founded during the Mexican period.
“… And so William Ellis grows up in this very rare community where you have Anglos and Tejanos and African Americans living alongside one another.”
Ellis learned to speak Spanish from Mexican workers “and, it seems, that by learning Spanish ... this whole new world opens up for him,” Jacoby said.
And, as Ellis grew older, his light complexion and his mastery of Spanish worked to his advantage.
“A lot of people make this assumption that he must be Mexican,” Jacoby said, “and it allows him to put himself in a different kind of persona and pursue a different opportunity.”
When Ellis died in 1923, his identity as a former Texas slave-turned-Mexican businessman had not yet been cracked. As a result, the branch of his his wife and children, who identified as Mexican remained in Mexico and lived as the Eliseos. Ellis’ siblings and extended family remained Ellises in the U.S. They established separate identities and lost touch.
In 2015, Jacoby arranged a family reunion between the Mexican Eliseos and the American Ellises.
“This is a story about a family being reunited across the border,” Jacoby said. “One of the things that’s really interesting is the Mexican side of the family knew that their grandfather had been American, but they did not know he had been African American. That was something that had been kept secret from the children.”
Chip Williams, Ellis’ great-grand-nephew, said he grew up hearing stories of his mysterious relative, so meeting his extended family “was one of the most wonderful moments of my life.”
Williams and Jacoby were even invited to the wedding last summer of Ellis’ great-grand-daughter outside of Mexico City. Williams said his family “sort of dropped their African-American identity altogether and blended into this American colony (in Mexico).”
Williams jokingly called the Mexican side of his family “the Mexican 1 percent, because they live very affluent lives they’re very well accomplished. They’re doctors, they’re chefs, models, scholars, professors.”