Uchenna Emenaha, PhD, is an is an educational researcher at the University of Texas at San Antonio whose research is centered in the use of culturally responsive teaching to bridge the gap between social issues and academic content. Her other research interests include social justice education and science education.
Nabeela Siddeeque is an undergraduate researcher at the University of Houston. Her research interests include equity and equality with a focus on marginalized groups.
Racial Passing and Blurred Color Lines: Exploring the social construct of race
William Henry Ellis, the son of Charles and Margaret, an enslaved couple, was only a toddler when Union soldiers arrived in Texas on June 19, 1865 (Jacoby, 2017). That day, Juneteenth, would eventually become an American holiday that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. On this day, however, soldiers arrived on the southeast coast of Texas to announce that the enslaved people were now free, and that the Civil War had ended. Charles and Margaret, now free, hoped that their family would no longer be treated as property because of their skin color.
Sadly, life was still very hard, because states in the U.S. South created harsh laws to maintain control over African Americans. This series of laws were known as Black Codes (Jacoby, 2017). Some Black Codes stated that African Americans in the South had to register to work every year. If they did not, they were fined and forced to work for minimum wage in very similar conditions to slavery.
Ellis Gets a Job
Ellis thought Black Codes were unfair and wanted a better life for himself and other formerly enslaved African Americans. He noticed that Black Codes did not apply to people of Mexican descent, and Mexican Americans were able to get better jobs that were not offered to African Americans. As a young boy in Victoria, Texas, he was able to learn Spanish from friends in his community.
In his late teens, Ellis decided to leave Victoria and move to San Antonio for better opportunities. Once he arrived in San Antonio, he changed his name to Enrique Eliseo so people in the town would think he was a Mexican native and not African American. By changing his name to racially pass as a Mexican, he got hired for jobs that African Americans in San Antonio were otherwise unable to get.
Passing was a difficult decision that many African Americans with lighter complexions practiced during the late 1800s and early 1900s. African Americans in the U.S. passed not because they wanted to, but rather as a survival strategy to avoid harsh racist treatment. This was a difficult decision because many people who passed often curtailed contact with family and friends to maintain their new identity. Additionally, for African Americans who could not pass, they did not have an option to escape the prejudices and injustices they faced because of the color of their skin.
While in San Antonio, Ellis worked very hard and saved up enough money to start his own textile business. Although Ellis grew a successful business, he still wanted to help better the lives of African Americans who struggled to get well-paying jobs because of racism and unjust laws.
Ellis Runs for Office
Ellis created another plan—this time to go into politics. After significant financial success as a ‘Mexican’ businessman in San Antonio, he ran as an African American Republican for the Texas Senate in 1896. He had heard of a new plan to relocate African American Texans to the haciendas in Tlahualilo, Mexico, and was in support of it. He believed the plan would help promote racial justice. At the time, the Mexican government did not have harsh racial laws like the Black Codes in the United States. Ellis believed that moving to Mexico would give African Americans more equal opportunities.
Ellis gained popularity as the news of his political campaign spread in his bid for State Senator. Although Ellis made a name for himself as a politician, he did not win the office of State Senator. Notably, his rising popularity risked exposing his dual identity as an African American man running for Senate while also living as a Mexican businessman in San Antonio. If people found out that he had been lying about being Mexican, he could lose everything. Ellis decided to give up his dream of being a politician, but he actively worked towards equality by supporting other African American politicians.
Ellis Travels Around the World
During the 1890s, the rail industry was rapidly growing, and a railroad was built that connected Texas to Mexico. Ellis viewed this as an opportunity to grow his business, so he traveled to Mexico. Ellis didn’t want to disclose his identity as an African American, because he worried that it would be reported to authorities back in the United States—so he came up with another plan. This time Ellis told people his name was Guillermo Enrique, to pass as a Cuban-American businessman. His plan worked, and everyone believed him. Ellis used the money from his business to buy the largest furniture factory in Mexico City, eventually making him a millionaire.
In search of more opportunities in late 1899, Ellis decided to move to New York, where he continued to tell people he was Cuban and where his business continued to prosper. He married a white American woman and had children, to whom he gave Spanish names. Ellis died in 1923 while on a business trip in Mexico City.
Newspaper stories reporting his death revealed Ellis’s true identity as the son of formerly enslaved African Americans. Some people were happy he was able to evade the color lines to become so successful. Some thought his actions made him a traitor, and others empathized and felt he was only doing what he needed to do to escape an oppressive life.
Ellis’s story is not unique during this time—thousands of African Americans with light skin and wavy hair would pass as Mexican or White, to take advantage of better opportunities. Throughout Ellis’s life, he remained in contact with his family and even supported politicians in Texas working to make life better for African Americans. However, most people who were passing during this time lost family and friends to keep their new identities secret.
- If you were Ellis, would you make the same decision to racially pass? Why or why not?
- Do you think it was fair for Ellis to run for office as an African American Texan, but live in San Antonio as a Mexican businessman? Why or why not?
- Do you think the concept of racial justice is important? Why or why not?
- The term “color line” was originally discussed by a popular African American civil rights leader, W.E.B. Du Bois, in the early 1900s, to describe the mistreatment of African Americans because of the color of their skin. Du Bois predicted that the color line would divide the U.S. and lead to prejudice towards African Americans. If you could travel back in time and have a conversation with Du Bois, what would you tell him about the accuracy or inaccuracy of his prediction?
Emenaha, U. (in press). Reimagining a culture of equality (R.A.C.E.) – Lesson: Discussing race in the science classroom, The American Biology Teacher.
Jacoby, K. (2017). The strange career of William Ellis: The Texas slave who became a Mexican millionaire. W.W. Norton & Company.
Du Bois, W.E.B. . (1968). The souls of black folk; essays and sketches. Chicago, A. G. McClurg, 1903. New York: Johnson Reprint Corp.
Leroux, D. (2019). Distorted descent: White claims to indigenous identity. University of Manitoba Press.
PBS. “What is Racial Passing?” https://www.pbs.org/video/what-is-racial-passing-ijx09h/
PBS. “Race the Power of Illusion, Episode 2” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4UZS8Wb4S5k&list=PL1rEBv3RSc4FM8Y5Y6M90sH92_1xO0TsE&index=2
“The Myth of Race, debunked in 3 minutes” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VnfKgffCZ7U&t=35s