William Henry Ellis, influential African-American entrepreneur, stockbroker, and proponent of the African-American emigration movement of the 1890s and early 1900s, was born in Victoria, Texas, on June 15, 1864. He was the son of recently-freed slaves, Charles and Margaret Nelson Ellis—a fact that, later on in life, Ellis hid from the public. Raised just outside of Victoria, Ellis felt a connection with the Hispanic heritage of the area’s Mexican-American population. He worked as a ranch hand and then as an assistant to a leather dealer. He began trading cattle in the Victoria area and also dealt in hides and wool. Ellis eventually expanded his hide and stock trade into other areas of Texas, as well as New Mexico and Arizona. At some point he worked as a customs inspector in Brownsville. According to Twentieth Century Successful Americans, Local and National (1917), Ellis attended college in Nashville and took business courses in New York at some time during his life.
Fluent in several languages, including Spanish, Ellis saw untapped opportunities in Mexican trade and began successfully dealing cotton across the border, as well as wool, hides, horses, and cattle. He began raising cattle in Mexico in 1888. During this time Ellis reinvented himself as the archetypical self-made American man. His light skin led some people to believe him to be a light-colored mulatto or of Spanish, Mexican, or Cuban descent—interpretations that Ellis encouraged. Eventually he began to alter his parents’ names, ethnicities, and birthplaces when asked and claimed Mexican or Cuban descent instead of his slave heritage from Kentucky. He created a Hispanic identity of “Guillermo Enrique Eliseo” by translating his name into Spanish. This alias allowed him to take advantage of amenities usually denied someone of African descent.
Ellis involved himself in African-American politics, particularly in Texas. During the 1880s and early 1890s, he allied himself with Norris Wright Cuney, Texas national committeeman of the Republican Party from 1886 to 1896 and an outspoken proponent of colonizing African Americans outside of the United States. Ellis also befriended Bishop Henry Turner, the chief proponent of the back-to-Africa movement in the post-Reconstruction era. These associations helped Ellis formulate his own ideas about African-American colonization. He advocated the idea that Latin America presented the ideal home for African Americans, because Mexico was much closer than Africa, and the Mexican north was similar to the southern United States in that both regions produced corn and cotton for international markets.
In 1888 Ellis visited Mexico City and persuaded President Porfirio Díaz to grant him a permit to establish a colony of thousands of African Americans in Mexico. The plan stalled however. Ellis visited the head of the Tlahualilo Corporation, Juan Llamedo, in Mexico City with a proposal in 1894. He sought funding for the colony and in return promised the delivery of some 5,000 black field hands to work the land. Llamedo and Ellis signed an agreement for Ellis to bring the workers, and in late 1894 he returned to the United States to recruit potential colonists. He signed a contract with a well-known black Atlanta emigration agent, R. A. “Pegleg” Williams, to assist him in his endeavors. Ellis and Williams transported the first and only consignments of 816 Alabama emigrants, including 145 families, to Mexico, and they arrived at Tlahualilo in early February 1895.
From the beginning, controversy, often encouraged by the Southern press, surrounded the colony. In early March, Williams returned to the United States and accused Ellis of not providing housing, rations, and supplies promised to the emigrants. The San Antonio Express reported on March 24, 1895, that several colonists, who had walked back across Mexico to the United States, reported that the colony was rapidly dissolving. Other newspapers in Alabama and Texas reported widespread mistreatment, starvation, and death of colonists. Ellis denied the criticism of the Southern press, refuted reports of deaths, and asked the State Department for an investigation. The investigation found the situation similar to that of Mexican workers, “but not as good as is received in [the emigrants’] own States.” The report stated that Ellis had failed to provide the proper food and medical services required for the colony, but could not substantiate many of the accusations levied against him in the newspapers. The colony itself dissolved, and the United States paid for the colonists’ return.
Ellis, who went back to San Antonio after his failed attempt in Mexico, saw an opportunity in Ethiopia to set up private commercial affairs overseas. In 1903 he met with King Menelek (also spelled Menilek or Menelik) of Ethiopia and received permission to grow cotton in Southern Ethiopia and establish a textile factory. Ellis saw himself as a self-made diplomat but had no official status as an accredited United States representative. However, by the time Ellis returned home, he had begun dialogue with Menelek in regards to establishing an American presence in Ethiopia. With the help of Robert P. Skinner, America’s consul general in Marseilles, France, who had, in his own right, been pressing for American involvement in the area, Ethiopia entered into a Treaty of Amity and Commerce with the United States, which served as an impetus for forging an official relationship between the two countries.
In 1904 Ellis purchased a seat on the New York Stock Exchange for a reportedly exorbitant price of $45,000. But in August 1904 he returned to Ethiopia to present an official copy of the ratified treaty to King Menelek. For his pivotal role in helping establish American-Ethiopian relations, Ethiopians honored Ellis with their highest award. After 1904 Ellis returned to the United States, where he resumed his stock brokering in New York. He was a member of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, American Geological Society, and Mexican Society of New York. He occasionally returned to San Antonio, where he had built a lavish home for his mother. He also developed mining interests in Mexico and South America. Ellis later sold his seat on the stock exchange and apparently moved to Mexico. He died in Mexico City on September 24, 1923. An obituary in the Dallas Express characterized his life as “spectacular, filled with strivings in a big way….”