A child of slaves who posed as a Mexican and became a millionaire

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On Sept. 24, 1923, Guillermo Enrique Eliseo died in the American Hospital in Mexico City at the age of 59. The millionaire New York stockbroker and Texas landowner had also served as a diplomatic envoy, the founder of a Black colony in Mexico, and the holder of a vast African regal estate. Though he passed as Mexican, he was actually an African American who began life as the son of slaves.

He was born William Henry Ellis in Victoria, Texas, in 1864. He formed friendships with the local Latinos at an early age, working first as a ranch hand and then as a dealer in hides and wool. Fluent in Spanish, he brokered cotton sales across the border and raised cattle in Mexico. He adopted a Spanish version of himself. His light brown skin color allowed him to “pass” as a Mexican, giving him several advantages not available to Blacks at the time. 

When the “Back to Africa” movement began, as an alternative for freed slaves unable to find work or acceptance in the South, Ellis proposed emigration to Mexico as a more welcoming and affordable option. He received a permit from President Porfirio Diaz to recruit men and women for a colony of 5,000 Blacks to settle in Mexico. Although well-intentioned, the effort was beset with problems and the project failed. Mexican agricultural and semi-skilled laborers were paid meager wages, and the Blacks found themselves similarly limited. Many complained about the lack of resources, had trouble adjusting to the countryside, and missed the States. Reluctantly, Ellis abandoned the project.

Second try

But Ellis wouldn’t rest until he did.

After brief political ambitions that led him to run as a candidate for the Texas Congress, in 1894 he decided to resume his colonization plan.

The signing of a contract with La Compañía Agrícola Limitada del Tlahualilo meant that almost a thousand African-Americans emigrated to this huge hacienda, located in northern Mexico between Durango and Coahuila, in 1895.

“I think this was the largest number of African-Americans to emigrate from the United States as a group during the entire 19th century.

Ellis then said, “Seven children have been born [on the ranch] and my life’s dream has come true . I have lived to see the African-American in the Land of God and Liberty.”

Soon, however, his desire to create a thriving community was thwarted.

The appearance of diseases, “something similar to malaria” as diagnosed by a doctor of the time, and the complaints about poor working conditions for the residents ended the project.

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Undeterred, he visited Africa and forged a relationship with the king of Ethiopia to grow cotton and open a textile factory. This experiment was an astounding success, enabling him to buy a seat on the New York Stock Exchange for $45,000 and become a broker. With the blessing of the U.S. State Department, he returned to Ethiopia and forged a favorable trade agreement between the two countries. For his efforts, the king rewarded him with a title and 1.6 million acres of fertile land. He returned to the States and became a member of New York society, attaining memberships in several clubs and organizations, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Geological Society, and the Mexican Society of New York. He was also a dinner guest at the prestigious Union League Club. 

When not in New York, he stayed at his ranch home in San Antonio, Texas. He was well known in the Republican Party as a contributor and supporter of pro-business candidates in state and national elections. But the siren song of Mexico continued to call him. And, in middle age, he returned to his beloved Mexico, where he managed several large ranches of absentee owners who trusted his expertise, knowledge of cattle, and acumen in sales and brokerage. There, he made his home for the rest of his life. 

He studiously avoided the expat community of gringos and did not join the American Society, perhaps for fear of being exposed. Or perhaps he just preferred the company of Mexicans, who had accepted him and treated him as one of their own.

Source: eldiariodechihuahua.mx, northamericanproject.com, tpr.org

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