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The Strange Career of William Ellis: The Texas Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire

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3.76  ·  Rating details ·  160 ratings  ·  34 reviews
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, fro ...more
Hardcover, First Edition, 304 pages
Published June 14th 2016 by W. W. Norton Company (first published June 13th 2016)
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Average rating 3.76  · 
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Start your review of The Strange Career of William Ellis: The Texas Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire
Blaine DeSantis
A very strange book. As a biography this gets about a 1.5* but as for a history of US/Mexican and Black/Mexican relations it is a 4****.
I say this because for at least the first half of the book William Ellis is really nowhere to be found. A mention here or there but most all of this is about those who went back and forth between the US and Mexico and how black slaves could pass themselves off in the US as Mexicans. It was a really informative book with regards to societal situations in the 1800
...more
James
May 16, 2020 rated it it was amazing
What a cool book! Jacoby put together an interesting portrait of a fascinating character who was born into slavery and then took on multiple identities in order to evade racism and in hopes of building a fortune. It started slow and just ended up as absolutely fascinating...
Stephen Andes
Oct 31, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Fantastic book. Great research and really amazing story.
Debbie J
The Strange Career of William Ellis is a fascinating story. Prior to reading it I had no awareness of an effort to encourage African American emigration to Mexico after Emancipation--or how former slaves would’ve considered such a move feasible.

This isn’t so much a William Ellis biography as an examination of the troubled racial, political, and trade history between the US and Mexico, especially along the Texas/Mexico border. Ellis' life often seems incidental with writer Karl Jacoby trying to s
...more
Jordan McPeek
I like history that looks at topics I'm not familiar with. This fit the bill. It primarily covers race relations on the Texas/Mexico border in the 1800s and early 1900s, particularly the concept of "passing" whereby light skinned blacks passed themselves off as a different racial background in order to get around the racial codes. It's the passing part, with its elements of con man skills, that really caught my eye.

It's not a popular history book like Erik Larson might do, so the academic writi
...more
Julia Hendon
Jul 05, 2016 rated it really liked it
William Henry Ellis, born into slavery and emancipated with his family, reinvented himself as Guillermo Enrique Eliseo, claiming to be Mexican, Cuban, and even Hawaiian. These alternative identities let him pass as "not black" in the late 19th century's Gilded Age. Unlike many African Americans who passed, Ellis sought fame and fortune through well publicized financial and political activities. Karl Jacoby draws on a wide range of sources and has produced a readable account of the period. Ellis ...more
Emily
Jul 05, 2016 rated it really liked it
Very interesting--the author managed to find a lot of information on this enigmatic figure, who obscured his identity throughout a large portion of his life. He didn't just "pass" for white; he called himself Mexican when it suited him, spoke fluent Spanish, and did a lot of business in Mexico. He was an entrepreneur, mostly, but sometimes a bit of a con man, but also a person who wanted to help others get more opportunities. A very interesting man, overall, and a great piece of creative non-fic ...more
Morris Massre
Oct 08, 2017 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
This book is full of speculation and innuendo. Apparently not enough research was done or even available, and for good reason, Ellis wanted it that way. Simple fact is the guy was a con who died penniless. Why Jacoby would portray him as some kind of hero millionaire is beyond me. Jacoby couldn't even explain where Ellis supposedly got his money or started his business. So the guy managed to pass himself off as white? So what? Many have. That doesn't make a book.
Carole
Mar 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book is a masterpiece. It brings to life the exploits and experiences of the book’s namesake William Henry Ellis as he, a former slave freed at the end of the USA Civil War, passed as a Mexican, a Cuban, a Hawaiian, and in all those guises not as a Black/African American. Ellis was an economic influencer in Mexico, New York City, and Addis Ababa (!), a man of many projects and schemes to make money and better the Negro’s position and opportunity in two nations, well respected, wealthy, poli ...more
Sherri
Jan 16, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
As a biography this is skimpy, but not for lack of research or effort. The author sets up the geographical and social setting, telling more about the peculiar ideas of race at the turn of the last century. Considering the current political climate concerning Hispanic people it is interesting that a hundred years ago most would be considered white and granted privileges and rights they seldom see today.

William Henry Ellis was a light skinned African American who spoke Spanish and passed as white
...more
Helen
Feb 20, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
It seems almost impossible that William Ellis, a child of black slaves and himself born into slavery, could reinvent himself as a white person. Or rather a Mexican, or a Cuba or Hawaiian. But he did and it only unraveled upon is death. In addition he was the consummate wheeler dealer who claimed great wealth. And at times he achieved that wealth.

So how did he do it? He practiced “passing,” that is passing yourself off as white. He was incredibly successful at this, as were other light-skinned Ne
...more
Daniella
Feb 06, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I finally read it!

This is not a dense academic read or a dry historical essay. It's such a well-written book that draws you into the world as it was unfolding during the Reconstruction era up until the death of Guillermo Ellis in the 1900s in Mexico and the US. It narrates the story of Guillermo a former enslaved black man in Texas who manages to "pass" as Mexican/Cuban/Hawaiian/white in order to achieve his goals (mostly capitalistic). However, the book also narrates the stories of these two co
...more
El C
Jun 26, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
i would recommend this book only because the historical period it is set in was pivotal to mexican american relationships. Ellis is somehow connected to that historical outcome, sure. But more importanty the mother of all modern american race relations was established within this same period in which the u.s. adopted the pure "white" and just "black" census standards. Ellis is an excellent person to illuminate the political fallout from the u.s. census race theory that is still broadly influenti ...more
Amber
Feb 04, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audio, library-oh
I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit it, but I've never really thought about Mexico as a refuge for enslaved people in the US. I had only really considered the Underground Railroad and the north star pointing the way to Canada. This book rectifies that oversight and tells the story of a man who "passed" as Mexican/Cuban/Hawaiian and grew incredibly rich despite the limitations posed by an unfair society.
Rrshively
May 17, 2018 rated it liked it
This book tells the incredible story of the former slave who became a millionaire. It includes the reasons why Texas became especially hostile to Hispanics, the politics of the U.S.-Mexico border, the gilded age, resettlement of African Americans in other countries, diplomacy with Ethiopia, the hazards of "crossing to the other side" and much more. It was amusing to find that William Ellis was the sort of con man and flim-flam artist that is still prevalent on Wall Street today.
Jim
Jun 18, 2017 rated it really liked it
The Strange Career of William Ellis is an interesting book that is simultaneously a biography of William Ellis/Guillermo Eliseo, a study of borderlands history, and a meditation on Americans' unique experience with the understanding of race. It is well worth the read as Ellis/Eliseo is a terrific cipher for the individual American encounters with race and borders.
Jess
May 14, 2019 rated it really liked it
A bit scant as a literal biography, but incredible well-researched information about the history of race relations along and across the Mexican border, including a lot about black americans leaving the south for Mexico. Also a lot about class/race/wealth/etc at the turn of the century in the US through a lens of someone who crossed in and out of these categories depending on circumstance.
Ed Goertzen
Nov 10, 2017 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Audio version very difficult to listen to. Narrator put "air quotes" in almost half the book with odd inflection points in almost every sentence - quite distracting. Very little of the book is actually about William Ellis.
Elizabeth McNair Demolat
Even though this book deals with such complicated and nuanced issues, it was easy to follow. Besides being incredibly fascinating, the book presented so much information that I was completely unaware of. It’s a great nonfiction read.
Carla Bass
Jul 20, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Loved it! Well researched and a fascinating account. Great for anyone with interest in Mexico, migration, racial politics and early 20th century economics.
Cindy
So many fascinating subjects in this book - Mexican history, Texas history, race relations in Mexico - but it got repetitive at times. Still, it was a good book to listen to while I was quilting.
Savannah
Oct 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Such a fascinating read! Everyone should pick this book up!
Daniel Farabaugh
Nov 02, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was a nice book. It does a really good job of examining the nature of the color line in American history and how it was not as simple as often presented.
Anna M Leuenberger
The chronicle of Ellis’ss life is thorough and engaging. The history references are complete abd referenced. I enjoyed the book and recommend iu
Jasmine Marie
So I didn’t read this book in it’s entirety because I waited until the last minute... but what I did read, I thought was interesting.
Elizabeth
Sep 14, 2016 rated it really liked it
Fascinating historical look at things that are still issues today-US/Mexico border and trade, race relations, how we present ourselves to get up in society.
It was chosen for book club but then some said it looked too dry and I agree it was super dry and if you can't wade through info on politics, capitalism, entrepreneurialism, history, trade and exports etc etc then getting to the smaller portion on an exceptional man and his trickster life will be hard. There is so much not known about Ellis b
...more
Ken Ransom
Jan 04, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: american-history
The extraordinary life of 19th-century African-American entrepreneur William Henry Ellis, a man born into slavery who always reinventing himself became a figure of seemingly great wealth and influence in both the U.S. and Mexico.

"The Strange Career of William Ellis" contains fresh insights on the history of the Reconstruction era, the US-Mexico border, and the different approaches by the two governments to the definition of race.

The stupidity and confusion about racial identification continue t
...more
Eric
Jan 17, 2017 rated it liked it
William Henry Ellis was a charlatan, a fraud. It's the reasons that he chose this path that make the story interesting. I enjoyed the histories of the stuggles of African Americans after emancipation and of Mexico's different path in the late 19th and early 20th centuries more than I enjoyed Ellis' particular story. Maybe enjoyed is not the right word. I found them enlightening. We get a lot of American and European history in our educational system, but I knew next to nothing about Mexico. This ...more
Jubalyn ExWilliams
Aug 19, 2019 added it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Jubalyn by: The Black Book Review Online
William Ellis navigated the multicultural caste system in Texas and the politicization of the border as training in international finance. One may question if he, like at Tlahualilo, concealed his African descent to penetrate American and Mexican societies; or if he penetrated both in doing so. Ellis perfected the art of "passing," and Jacoby found no less complex a figure to contribute scholarship on the subject.
Mike Horne
Feb 05, 2017 rated it liked it
I enjoyed this book. Interesting history. not the most gripping.
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