african americans colonizing mexico -- 10/10/16

Today's selection -- from The Strange Career of William Ellis. William Ellis was born as a slave in Texas during the Civil War, but learned to "pass" as white by adopting an identity as a Mexican national and became a wealthy entrepreneur with dual residences in Mexico City and New York City. In the late 1800s he became part of a large-scale and eventually unsuccessful effort to colonize blacks in Mexico:

"[Black Americans such as Henry McNeal Turner had long discussed the idea of colonizing blacks in Africa] and by1889, Ellis had begun to entertain ideas of emigration himself, although not in quite the same vein as Turner. Whereas Turner looked to the African past in his search for a sanctuary for African Americans, Ellis instead envisioned a future for American blacks that was located across the border in Mexico. To further this goal, in August 1889, Ellis and Henry Fergu­son, another African American, ... traveled south on the new rail line to Mexico City, bearing letters of introduction from the Mexican consul in San Antonio to Mexico's secretary of for­eign affairs, Ignacio Mariscal, and secretary of fomento (public works), Carlos Pacheco Villalobos.

William Ellis

"Ferguson and Ellis persuaded Pacheco, a grizzled former general who had lost both an arm and a leg in the war against the French, to grant them a ten-year contract to colonize up to twenty thousand settlers in Mexico. Although the race and nation­ality of the colonists were not specified in the contract -- only that each colonist would have a certificate attesting to his or her 'morality, honesty, and diligence' -- Ellis and Ferguson's comments to the press left little doubt that they intended to fill the colonists' ranks with African Americans. ...

"The colonization movement represented one of the most divisive fault lines running through African American politics in the late nineteenth century. Even as they defended the right of blacks to live wherever they pleased, most black leaders ... decried efforts to relocate African Americans. These figures charged that emigra­tion not only diminished the pool of African American voters; it also encouraged long-standing white fantasies of solving the United States' 'race problem' by ethnically cleansing all blacks from the nation. Even the great liberator Abraham Lincoln had briefly enter­tained thoughts of colonizing freed slaves on Mexico's Tehuantepec isthmus or Yucatán peninsula. Above all, by presenting blacks' real home as elsewhere, emigration diverted attention from what many African Americans perceived as the more pressing task: achieving their full civil rights in the United States. 'I cannot see wherein [African Americans] would gain anything [by emigration],' con­tended [Norris] Cuney. 'They are so thoroughly identified with the perpe­tuity of our American institutions, that it seems to me to be rather late for them now to seek homes in a new country with the customs, government and people of which they are thoroughly unacquainted. There is much more glory, honor and gain for the colored man here in the land of his birth, and here he should stay and fight his way to the front.'"


Karl Jacoby


The Strange Career of William Ellis: The Texas Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire


W. W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2016 by Karl Jacoby


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