Winner of the Ray Allen Billington Prize and the Phillis Wheatley Book Award
"An American 'Odyssey,' the larger-than-life story of a man who travels far in the wake of war and gets by on his adaptability and gift for gab." —Wall Street Journal
A black child born on the US-Mexico border in the twilight of slavery, William Ellis inhabited a world divided along ambiguous racial lines. Adopting the name Guillermo Eliseo, he passed as Mexican, transcending racial lines to become fabulously wealthy as a Wall Street banker, diplomat, and owner of scores of mines and haciendas south of the border. In The Strange Career of William Ellis, prize-winning historian Karl Jacoby weaves an astonishing tale of cunning and scandal, offering fresh insights on the history of the Reconstruction era, the US-Mexico border, and the abiding riddle of race in America.
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.