William Henry Ellis, an African American businessman who challenged racial constructs in the United States by “passing” as Hispanic, was born a slave to Charles and Margaret Ellis on June 15, 1864. His parents had been brought by Joseph Weisiger from Kentucky to Texas in 1853. In 1870 the Ellis parents had gained their freedom and relocated to Victoria, Texas, where they established a home for themselves and their seven children.
In his youth, William Henry Ellis attended school in Victoria with his sister, Fannie, while his other siblings held full-time jobs as laborers or servants. Sometime during his teenage years, Ellis learned to speak fluent Spanish.
During his early twenties, Ellis was employed by William McNamara, a cotton and hide dealer, and constantly conducted business with Spanish-speaking businessmen. Eventually, Ellis made a name for himself in the trade. Around 1887, Ellis settled permanently in San Antonio, Texas, and began calling himself “Guillermo Enrique Eliseo,” spreading a fabricated story of his Cuban and Mexican ancestry in newspapers and social circles to conceal his real racial identity, thus enjoying some of the freedoms other African Americans could not experience at the time. He balanced these two identities for the rest of his life.
By the early 1890s, Ellis was swept into Texas politics. In 1888 he gave a speech in support of Norris Wright Cuney that landed Ellis an appointment to the Texas Republican Party’s Committee on Resolutions. By 1892, Ellis was nominated to represent the 83rd District in the Texas Legislature but lost the election to A.G. Kennedy, a white Democrat. Ellis would never seek public office again.
As time went on, Ellis began embracing ideas of African American colonization abroad, especially in Mexico. He was once quoted as saying, “Mexico has no race prejudice from a social standpoint.” Twice during the 1890s, Ellis attempted to create a colony for blacks in Mexico from the southern United States. Both attempts would fail. The first, started in 1889, fell