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.Read more...
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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. He crafted an alter ego, the Mexican Guillermo Eliseo, who was able to access many of the privileges denied to African Americans at the time: traveling in first-class train berths, staying in upscale hotels, and eating in the finest restaurants.
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. Ellis, unlike many passers, maintained a connection to his family and to black politics that also raised awkward questions about his racial status. Yet such was Ellis s skill in manipulating his era s racial codes, most of the whites he encountered continued to insist that he must be Hispanic even as Ellis became embroiled in scandals that hinted the man known as Guillermo Eliseo was not quite who he claimed to be.
The Strange Career of William Ellis 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."
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2016-04-25
- Reviewer: Staff
In vivid and lyrical prose, Jacoby (Crimes Against Nature), a professor of history at Columbia University, recounts the extraordinary life of 19th-century African-American entrepreneur William Henry Ellis, a man born into slavery who became a figure of great wealth and influence in both the U.S. and Mexico. Jacoby emphasizes Ellis’s individual achievements as well as his adroit manipulation of Gilded Age America’s confused and contradictory ideas about race. While many African-Americans hoped to escape American racial prejudices by passing as white, Ellis shrewdly took advantage of his countrymen’s racial ignorance beyond the black-white binary by presenting himself as a Mexican, a Cuban, and even an indigenous Hawaiian. These racial masquerades served him well on Wall Street, where he built his vast fortune, but should not be seen as a repudiation of his heritage, Jacoby argues. Throughout his life, Ellis maintained contact with his black-identified relatives and attempted to improve the options for Americans of color at the onset of the Jim Crow era by encouraging Southern black men and women to migrate to Mexico. Jacoby deftly analyzes the divergent ways in which racial identities developed on both sides of the Mexican-American border and reminds his readers that “we all inhabit a mestizo, mulatto America.” Illus. (June)