Karl Jacoby is the author of the new book The Strange Career of William Ellis: The Texas Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire. He also has written Shadows at Dawn and Crimes Against Nature. He is a professor at Columbia University in the Department of History and the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race.
Q: You write that you first found out about William H. Ellis while doing some research in graduate school. At what point did you decide to write a book about him, and what surprised you most in the course of your research?
A: I found out about him ages ago, almost 20 years ago. The tricky thing about researching him is that he was trying to hide traces of his life. Usually, if it’s someone like Thomas Jefferson, people preserve the records. This is a case of someone who was not trying to preserve documents.
The piece that broke it for me was about seven or eight years ago. I thought I could make it work if I could track down his family members, who could tell me his actual background.
There’s a lot of genealogical material on the web. I was able to track down his grandnieces in the Los Angeles area, and was able to interview them. They had letters, photos…I realized I had enough to do the project.
I was ambivalent about the rise of the Web—in this case, the project would have been impossible without it. A lot of newspapers are online, digitalized, so you can go through huge databases quickly—if you put in the names or pseudonyms. This project would not be possible without the rise of new computerized forms of doing research.
What surprised me—everything surprised me! William Ellis was a person who breaks almost every rule—a former slave in the Deep South…it’s amazing what he was able to achieve. He was from a modest background and education, and he knows Theodore Roosevelt, Porfirio Diaz, he operates in high circles. The fact that he was able to do that, for me, was captivating.
Q: How well known was Ellis during his lifetime?
A: It’s a little hard to measure, but I feel he was very well known. He was often quoted in The New York Times when they wanted insights into Mexico. He was involved in things that had tons of newspaper coverage. When he died, almost every major newspaper had an obituary.
I’m stunned he’s so forgotten now. People at the turn of the last century would have known his name. He had connections to politicians, to people in the African American community, people in Mexico knew who he was…
Q: In the book, you write, “Ellis’s passing cast in sharp relief not only the peculiar tensions running through race relations in the United States but elsewhere as well.” How did race relations in Mexico at the time compare with those in the U.S.?
A: It’s really interesting…I’m trying to talk about Ellis’s life and also illuminate larger themes. Mexico and the U.S. were emerging from traumatic effects in the 19th century.
For the U.S., it was the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves. In Mexico, it was the war of independence and the war against the French, which in essence was a second war of independence.
Both countries were trying to figure out that they were not as coherent a nation as they had thought….In the U.S., it was around the issue of racial purity; they were increasingly obsessed with segregation of white and black.
In Mexico, it’s the reverse, to go toward the idea of mixing: we’re all mixed together with common ingredients, Indian and white. On one level, it’s very different, but in both senses, African Americans are on the outside.
In the U.S., African Americans were lower, second-class citizens. In Mexico, they thought of mixing as Indian and European. There were people of African descent in Mexico, but they were excluded as well.
They were both very racist countries, in their own very unique ways, at the time. William Ellis…figures out a way to move between both countries…
Q: How did Ellis make his money, and how unusual was his story at the time?
A: I was desperate to get my hands on bank records. It’s a little suppositive. One main thing that happened in the Gilded Age was the birth of middle-class America, consumer society.
Almost everything that was emerging as a consumer item was linked to Mexico: automobiles were linked to petroleum and rubber. Electrification and the telephone were linked to copper wires…
Americans realized they were tremendously connected to Mexico. When Porfirio Diaz opens up Mexico to U.S. investment, a lot of Americans don’t understand Mexico and how to navigate there. William Ellis is a broker who helps facilitate that, selling almost a fantasy of Mexico as a land where everybody can become wealthy.
This was not that uncommon. It was the Silicon Valley of the Gilded Age.
Q: At the end of the book, you write about how your research ended up reuniting different branches of Ellis’s family. How did that happen, and have the family members seen the book yet?
A: The first branch I was able to trace was the American branch, the descendants of William Ellis’s sister. The family was living in San Antonio, and as part of the Great Migration…they head West in the 1920s and ‘30s.
I was facing a mystery—William Ellis dies in the 1920s, and I was trying to figure out what happened to his widow and children. They dropped out of the U.S. historical records. I thought maybe she remarried—I couldn’t find any marriage certificates for her.
I asked the family in Los Angeles, what happened to them? They said they ended up moving to Mexico, trying to reclaim some of his riches. It was harder to do genealogical research in Mexico…it took me a while to track down his grandchildren and great-grandchildren in Mexico.
The families had lost touch. The family in Los Angeles knew they had family in Mexico, but hadn’t communicated in almost 100 years. The family in Mexico knew their grandfather was American, but not that he was African American.
They were very interested in one another. One of the first things I did was put them back in touch with one another, [which led to] a family reunion.
At New Year’s this year, some of the U.S. relatives went to Mexico to spend time with their relatives. The family was splintered apart by forces of history. The idea that they could draw back and meet each other was really neat.
When I found the branch in Los Angeles, I decided I needed to ask their permission to write the book. It was not legally required, but I felt in this case I was revealing potential family secrets. If they were uneasy, I didn’t want to be involved.
I was anxious—I had done a lot of research. If they said no, it would have been disappointing! I flew to Los Angeles, and met with them in person. Much to my delight they said, We’d love you to write this book!
There are three sisters, the matriarchs of the family. One thing they said was, Can you write it quickly, because we’re getting up there [in years]. I felt like I was back on the tenure track! I’m glad to say, the oldest just celebrated her 85th birthday. I showed them the draft, and I got actual copies a couple of weeks ago, and FedExed it to them.
They have been supportive and generous…they are lovely people and I have become incredibly close with them. Usually when I do history, 19th century, [it involves] dead people. This project is lovely, connecting with people.
Q: Are you working on another book?
A: I have a couple of vague ideas. I was writing this in a fury, and it did exhaust me a little! I’ve decided I’m not going to dive back in for another year or so. My last book was on Indians on the U.S.-Mexico border, and this is about the U.S.-Mexico border. This is a prominent part of my research.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb