Texas history pop quiz: what Texan worked to create an American colony in Mexico, was the last person to see a disappeared man, negotiated a treaty with Ethiopia, and switched between ethnic identities such as Mexican, Cuban, and African American to gain the best circumstances? Time’s up! If you guessed William Henry Ellis, you were right. If this name is news to you, read on, for the story of this man is surely an interesting one.
Born in Victoria, Texas, one year before Juneteenth, African American William Henry Ellis grew up working as an assistant and translator in the 1880s for a white dealer of cotton and animal hides. In 1888, Ellis moved to San Antonio and began working on his plan for the African-American emigration movement: to establish a colony for African Americans in Mexico. Soon the Mexican Congress and Senate approved his colonization plan and colonists were recruited from Waco, Houston, and Chicago. The first and only trainload of African American colonists left Tuscaloosa, Alabama on January 25, 1895, bound for Tlahualilo, Mexico, but the colony venture was unsuccessful and the Americans returned, likely due to lack of quality food, services, and facilities.
Photo: @JBL via Twenty20
Next, Ellis looked to the country Ethiopia as a place to establish private commercial affairs. Meeting with King Menelek (also spelled Menilek or Menelik) in 1903, Ellis received permission to grow cotton there and build a textile factory. He went on to singularly assist with the United States and Ethiopia entering into a Treaty of Amity and Commerce. Hs travel companion, the brother of an assistant secretary of state, disappeared. A year later, Ellis was back in the U.S., residing in New York but also visiting his mother in San Antonio. He passed away in Mexico on September 24, 1923, at the young age of 59, and was strangely buried in an unmarked grave in the Spanish Cemetery. He left behind a wife and four surviving children. Read more about this fascinating man in the book “The Strange Career of William Ellis: The Texas Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire,” by Karl Jacoby.