America’s views and understandings toward race in book “The Strange Career of William Ellis”

The Strange Career of William Ellis: The Texas Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire by Karl Jacoby is about a successful entrepreneur named William Ellis who lived an extraordinary life. Born into slavery as William Ellis in Victoria, Texas, he later decided to begin his new life as a Mexican named Guillermo Enrique Eliseo to avoid the violent discrimination against African Americans in Texas in the 1800s. He started many businesses and achieved success even on Wall Street, where he became extremely successful financially by presenting himself as a foreigner. In this book, Jacoby emphasizes how America’s views and understandings toward race were simply in black and white in the Gilded Age.

Slavery ended in 1865 and four million enslaved African Americans including Ellis were liberated. However, there appeared different forms of intense segregation towards the former slaves, demarcating whites from blacks. Whites in the Southern United States even passed Jim Crow laws to enforce race segregation. After emancipation, Ellis decided to flee to Mexico to avoid discrimination and became Guillermo Eliseo. By taking advantage of being bilingual, he started business and then moved into trade as importer and eventually became the wealthiest resident of the City of Mexico without doubt.

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The interesting part is while many former slaves tried to avoid segregation by passing as white, Elli, by contrast, reinvented himself as a member of any number of ethnicities, benefitting from his light skin color and linguistic skill. While visiting the United States to do his business, he had passed as Mexican, Cuban, or even Hawaiian. Ellis became successful in America as well by taking advantage of how ignorant whites in American are of race. Even though William Ellis and Guillermo Eliseo were the same person, Eliseo’s life was different from Ellis’s life. Back in Victoria, Texas, William Ellis had to suffer due to his ethnicity first from slavery and then from segregation.

However, things changed after he crossed the border and became Mexican. When the African American writer Langston Hughes ventured into Mexico in the early 1900s, he witnessed that “just by stepping across an invisible line into Mexico, a Negro could buy a beer in any bar, sit anywhere in the movies, or eat in any restaurant, so suddenly did Jim Crow disappear.” Eliseo saw no segregation towards him anymore and was eventually able to identify his talents and fully utilize them in business field. As Mexican, sometimes as Cuban or Hawaiian, he had no trouble running his business in the United States and becoming one of the first blacks on Wall Street. William Ellis’s story of personal achievements as an entrepreneur is impressive but it is more interesting to see how Gilded Age America’s understanding about race was extremely confused and inconsistent.

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America’s views and understandings toward race in book “The Strange Career of William Ellis”. (2022, Nov 23). Retrieved from