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Fronteras: How A Former Texas Slave Became A Millionaire

He was born a slave in Texas and became a Mexican millionaire. William Henry Ellis had one of the most remarkable, and mysterious, rags-to-riches stories of the early 20th century. We spoke with Karl Jacoby and Chip Williams to better understand the story of this self-made millionaire and all his identities in between.

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Credit Norma Martinez / Texas Public Radio
Karl Jacoby, professor of history at Columbia University, and author of ‘The Strange Career of William Ellis: The Texas Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire,’ and Chip Williams, a Los Angeles public school teacher and the great grand-nephew of William Ellis.

Plantation Fields To Wall Street

Guillermo Enrique Eliseo was one of the most successful Mexican businessmen, of the early 20th century. He owned mines and haciendas in Mexico and was a wealthy Wall Street banker. However, Guillermo was not of Mexican descent. He was born a slave in Victoria, Texas, in 1864, and was christened William Henry Ellis.

FRONTERAS EXTRAHow A Former Texas Slave Became A Wall Street Millionaire

Slaves in South Texas often intermingled with the Mexican nationals and Tejanos in the region, which in time served Ellis as he became fluent in Spanish. He also took advantage of his light complexion to reinvent himself as he crossed between borders.

The U.S. had a deep interest in investing in Mexico in the early 1900s. However, officials faced language and cultural barriers. When Ellis showed up on Wall Street and presented himself as Mexico-native Guillermo Enrique Eliseo, he used his knowledge of Mexico to fuse business ties between the two countries.
Jacoby is a professor of history at Columbia University, and author of “The Strange Career of William Ellis: The Texas Slave who Became a Mexican Millionaire,” and Williams is a Los Angeles public school teacher and the great grand-nephew of Ellis.

Norma Martinez can be reached at norma@tpr.org and on Twitter @NormDog1, and Lauren Terrazas can be reached at lauren@tpr.org and on Twitter @terrazas_lauren.

Norma Martinez can be reached at norma@tpr.org and on Twitter at @NormDog1
Lauren Terrazas can be reached at lauren@tpr.org and on Twitter at @terrazas_lauren