Guillermo Enrique Eliseo was one of the most influential Mexican businessmen of the early 20th century. The stockbroker and entrepreneur was the owner of various businesses including haciendas and mines in Mexico. Yet, he was not of Mexican descent. In fact, Eliseo was an African-American man who was born enslaved in Victoria, Texas, in 1864, a year before slavery was abolished in the state. His real name was William Henry Ellis.
Growing up in Victoria, Texas, where his family had relocated, Ellis was less than 200 miles to the Mexican border. Enslaved men and women in the region at the time mingled with the Mexican nationals and Tejanos. Ellis would do the same. He connected with the Hispanic heritage of the region’s Mexican-American population, enabling him to become fluent in Spanish. His light skin complexion also worked to his advantage.
Victoria was “where the Mexican ranching frontier meets the Anglo cotton plantation belt,” Karl Jacoby, author of “ The Strange Career of William Ellis: The Texas Slave who Became a Mexican Millionaire” explained, “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 worked with Mexican workers as a ranch hand and then as an assistant to a leather dealer while learning to speak Spanish. And with his light complexion, a lot of people assumed that he must be Mexican, Jacoby said, adding that it allowed Ellis “to put himself in a different kind of persona and pursue a different opportunity.”
Ellis, by his 20s, was already trading cattle in the Victoria area while also dealing in hides and wool. He expanded his trade into other areas of Texas as well as New Mexico and Arizona. Taking business courses in New York and becoming fluent in several languages including Spanish, Ellis cashed in on many unexplored areas of Mexican trade. He did not only deal in hides, wool, horses and cattle but also traded cotton across the border. In 1888, he started raising cattle in Mexico. At this time, he had created a Hispanic identity, calling himself “Guillermo Enrique Eliseo”.
Becoming a successful and well-known businessman, he changed his parents’ names, birthplaces and ethnicities as well, claiming to be of Mexican or Cuban descent when asked. And with his complexion, many believed his story, enabling him to have certain freedoms and amenities other African Americans would not have had at the time.
In the early 1890s, he entered into Texas politics, working with the Texas Republican Party’s Committee on Resolutions before becoming one of the chief proponents of the African-American emigration movement of the 1890s and early 1900s. With his firm belief that Latin America, especially Mexico, would offer an “ideal home” for African Americans, Ellis made two attempts to create a colony for African Americans in Mexico from the southern United States but failed. Lack of funding and support from the Mexican government ruined his first attempt in 1891. He was almost successful with his second attempt as he was able to bring about eight hundred people from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to settle in Tlahualilo in northern Mexico in February 1895. But by March, Ellis was accused of not fulfilling his promise of providing housing and supplies to the emigrants. Soon, almost all of them returned to the U.S.
Ellis, in due course, moved to New York City, where he became president of a lot of mining and rubber companies, all of which had invested heavily in Mexico. In 1903, Ellis, who had just started a family, saw an opportunity in Ethiopia and traveled there to meet King Menelik, eventually helping establish American-Ethiopian relations. By 1904, Ellis was back in New York; he bought a seat on Wall Street but sold it in 1910 due to financial troubles. Ellis then moved his family to Mexico, where he would spend his last days before passing away at the age of 59 on September 24, 1923.
“When Ellis died in 1923, his identity as a former Texas slave-turned-Mexican businessman had not yet been cracked,” Kera News reported in 2018. “As a result, the branch of 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,” the report said.
In 2015, the Mexican Eliseos and the American Ellises reunited, thanks to Jacoby.