Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies
Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies

MALS Co-sponsored Event

"'A Picturesque Figure,' Chapter 5 of "The Strange Career of William Ellis: The Texas Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire," by Karl Jacoby, Columbia University

Mon, November 7, 2016 | GAR 4.100

12:00 PM - 1:30 PM

 

Karl Jacoby
Professor of History
Columbia University
Faculty Profile | karljacoby.com

Professor Jacoby will discuss 'A Picturesque Figure,' Chapter 5 of his most recent publication, The Strange Career of William Ellis: The Texas Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire (W.W. Norton, May 2016).

About The Strange Career of William Ellis: 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, from Mexico at all. Rather, he had begun life as a slave named William Ellis, born on a cotton plantation in southern Texas during the waning years of King Cotton.

After emancipation, Ellis, capitalizing on the Spanish he learned during his childhood along the Mexican border and his ambivalent appearance, engaged in a virtuoso act of reinvention. He crafted an alter ego, the Mexican Guillermo Eliseo, who was able to access many of the privileges denied to African Americans at the time: traveling in first-class train berths, staying in upscale hotels, and eating in the finest restaurants.

Eliseo’s success in crossing the color line, however, brought heightened scrutiny in its wake as he became the intimate of political and business leaders on both sides of the US-Mexico border. Ellis, unlike many passers, maintained a connection to his family and to black politics that also raised awkward questions about his racial status. Yet such was Ellis’s skill in manipulating his era’s racial codes, most of the whites he encountered continued to insist that he must be Hispanic even as Ellis became embroiled in scandals that hinted the man known as Guillermo Eliseo was not quite who he claimed to be.

The Strange Career of William Ellis reads like a novel but offers fresh insights on the history of the Reconstruction era, the US-Mexico border, and the abiding riddle of race. At a moment when the United States is deepening its connections with Latin America and recognizing that race is more than simply black or white, Ellis’s story could not be more timely or important. 

Karl Jacoby received his A.B. in 1987 from Brown University and his Ph.D. in American history in 1997 from Yale University. After a year as a visiting assistant professor at Oberlin College, he returned to Brown as an assistant professor of history in 1999. He was promoted to an associate professor with tenure in 2003 and to full professor in 2009. In the fall of 2012, he moved to Columbia University, where he currently serves as a professor in the Department of History and in the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. He is the author of two books, Crimes Against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation (University of California Press, 2003) and Shadows at Dawn: A Borderlands Massacre and the Violence of History(Penguin Press, 2008) (see also NPR's coverage of 'Shadows' Uncovers Indian Massacre), as well as numerous essays and reviews.

Karl Jacoby has devoted his career to understanding the ways in which the making of the United States intertwined with the unmaking of a variety of other societies—from Native American nations to the communities of northern Mexico—and the ecologies upon which they rested. His scholarship is distinguished by its close attention to questions of narrative and storytelling, in-depth micro-historical approach, and border-crossing nature. Jacoby’s published work straddles multiple boundaries—not only the geographic divisions between East and West, and Mexico and the United States, but also the methodological divides between labor history and environmental history, genocide studies and Native American history, and borderlands history and African-American history.

Responder:
Nakia Parker
Doctoral Student in History
University of Texas at Austin
liberalarts.utexas.edu/history/graduate/gradstudents/profile.php?id=ndp528

Co-sponsored by: Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies; Institute for Historical Studies in the Department of History

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