Episode 12: Unrecognizable Citizens
We’ve been to Mexico a few times this season, but we promised in the first episode that we’d return one last time, to talk about the relationship between Black Americans and the consuls in Mexico. So that’s where we’re closing out Season 1. In this episode, we’re taking the perspective of the Black Americans who had to deal with consuls in the midst of incredibly difficult circumstances. We’ll tell the story of Lucien Matthews, a free Black man who did business in Mexico before the Civil War, and the story of William Ellis, whose colonization scheme for Black Americans in the 1890s went horribly wrong. In each case, these Black Americans were sometimes unrecognizable to the American consuls–but that wasn’t entirely a bad thing.
Alice Baumgartner is an assistant professor of history at the University of Southern California. She holds a Ph.D. from Yale University and an M.Phil in Latin American Studies from the University of Oxford where she was a Rhodes Scholar. Her first book, South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to Civil War, was selected as an Editor’s Choice by the New York Times Book Review and as a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize in History.
Karl Jacoby has devoted his career to understanding the ways in which the making of the United States intertwined with the unmaking of a variety of other societies—from Native American nations to the communities of northern Mexico—and the ecologies upon which they rested. His scholarship is distinguished by its close attention to questions of narrative and storytelling, in-depth micro-historical approach, and border-crossing nature. Jacoby’s published work straddles multiple boundaries—not only the geographic divisions between East and West, and Mexico and the United States, but also the methodological divides between labor history and environmental history, genocide studies and Native American history, and borderlands history and African-American history.
Jacoby received his A.B. in 1987 from Brown University and his Ph.D. in American history in 1997 from Yale University. After a year as a visiting assistant professor at Oberlin College, he returned to Brown as an assistant professor of history in 1999. He was promoted to an associate professor with tenure in 2003 and to full professor in 2009. In the fall of 2012, he moved to Columbia University, where he currently serves as the Allan Nevins Professor of American History and as the co-director of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. He is the author of three books, Crimes Against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation (University of California Press, 2003), Shadows at Dawn: A Borderlands Massacre and the Violence of History (Penguin Press, 2008), and The Strange Career of William Ellis: The Texas Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire (W.W. Norton, 2016) as well as numerous essays and reviews.
ABBY MULLEN: Eleven episodes ago, we started Consolation Prize in Mexico by telling the story of how Americans lived and worked in Mexico in the 1830s and 40s. Sometimes they worked with the US consuls there; sometimes they didn’t. In that episode, our expert, David McKenzie, noted that all the people he was talking about were white–and that the experiences of Black people in Mexico were pretty different. We promised then that we’d circle back to the topic of Black people’s interactions with US consuls in Mexico. Now, in our final episode of Season 1, that’s what we’re doing.
MULLEN: I’m Abby Mullen, and this is Consolation Prize, a podcast about the history of the United States in the world through the eyes of its consuls. Before we get to our story, can we ask for your help? If you’ve listened to Consolation Prize this season–whether this is your twelfth episode, or your first–we’d love you to do two things for us. One, leave us a review. Reviews don’t matter for the podcast charts, or anything like that–but they do tell us what you liked about the show, and what you’d like to see in Season 2–and yes, there will be a Season 2. It’s already under development. You can give us a review on Apple Podcasts, Podchaser, or wherever else you can review podcasts. And second, if you’re not already following our podcast on your favorite podcast platform, whether that’s Apple, Spotify, Google, or something else, go ahead and hit that “follow” button. That way you’ll know when we start releasing Season 2 episodes in the fall, and you’ll get the bonus episodes that we’ve got planned for the summer. Thanks for doing that, and now on with the show.
Sometimes someone would come along and try to get us to run up North and be free. We used to laugh at that. There wasn’t no reason to run up North. All we had to do was to walk, but walk South, and we’d be free as soon as we crossed the Rio Grande. In Mexico you could be free, They didn’t care what color you was, black, white, yellow or blue. Hundreds of slaves did go to Mexico and got on all right. We would hear about ‘em and how they was goin’ to be Mexicans, they brought up their children to speak only Mexican.FELIX HAYWOOD (Jeremiah Dew), SLAVE NARRATIVES: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States From Interviews with Former Slaves, 132.
MULLEN: Felix Haywood was 92 years old in the 1930s when he said this to an interviewer from the Federal Writers Project. For an enslaved person living in Texas, Mexico must have seemed like a land of opportunity–and so close they could almost touch it. Now, it wasn’t quite true that Mexicans didn’t care what color you were but Mexico was a land of new beginnings for many Black Americans, those who were free and those who were seeking freedom.
MULLEN: Today we’re turning the tables. Up to this point, we’ve told stories where consuls were the protagonists. But today we’re going to tell you two stories about Americans who had to deal with consuls in Mexico, and how they used the consular system to their advantage. Because these Americans lived in Mexico, they could get the help that the federal government offered through US consular service–help that would not have been offered if they had still been in the United States.
MULLEN: In 1859, a man named Lucien Matthews filed a claim against the Mexican government. This claim was recorded and presented to the US Senate as a “claim against a foreign government by a United States citizen.” The claim was for $30,580 and it was for:
“injuries and damages resulting from false imprisonment, and the breaking up of his business as a bricklayer and brickmaker.”LUCIEN MATTHEWS (God’s Will Katchoua), “Claims of Citizens of the United States Against Foreign Government,” Congressional Serial Set. 1859. U.S. Government Printing Office. 89.
MULLEN: This claim was pretty similar to dozens of other claims against the Mexican government. But it was different in one major way: the claimant was Black.
ALICE BAUMGARTNER: Lucien Matthews is an African American man living in a town called Minatitlán, which is about 100 miles south of Veracruz. And in 1853 he is arrested for having spoken out against Antonio López de Santa Anna, who I think most people are familiar with as the tyrant of Mexico who helped provoke the Texas Revolution, but he comes to power multiple times in Mexican history. In 1853, he is establishing a much more centralist and much more Imperial style of rule. And so Lucien Matthews is accused, rightly or wrongly, of having protested in some way against Santa Anna, and for that he is thrown in jail.
MULLEN: This is Alice Baumgartner, who wrote about Lucien Matthews in her book South to Freedom. When Matthews was imprisoned, he did what an American was supposed to do–he reached out to the consul for help. It was the consul’s job to help out Americans who committed crimes–or were accused of committing them. The American consul in Minatitlán was a man named A.C. Allen. He now had to decide what to do about Matthews.
BAUMGARTNER: The local consul is faced with this choice of whether to intercede on Matthews’ behalf as you would any US citizen. But of course, the question is whether Matthews is a US citizen because he is Black.
MULLEN: Before we get to the answer to that question, let’s back up a little and talk about why Lucien Matthews might have been in Mexico to begin with. We don’t know for sure why Matthews came, but we do have an idea of why people like him did. Some free Black Americans came looking for business opportunities. Lucien Matthews might have been in this category–we know he was a bricklayer.
MULLEN: But some Black Americans came for another reason: to escape from enslavement. In the beginning, Mexico wasn’t too much safer than the United States for these people. Slavery was officially abolished in Mexico in 1829, but Alice argues that slavery was only truly abolished in Mexico in 1837, after Texas declared independence. However, Mexico still seemed like a better place–one that enslaved people would go to any lengths to get to.
BAUMGARTNER: In 1835, an enslaved man named John Antoine hid in the hold of a ship that was docked at New Orleans. And he managed to stay hidden in that ship, for the journey all the way to the town of Campeche in southeastern Mexico. And when the ship finally docked at the port of Campeche the captain asks the port police to help arrest whoever is in their hold. They had some idea that there was a stowaway down there. And they are able to finally find John Antoine and arrest him.
BAUMGARTNER: And in 1835, Mexico hadn’t abolished slavery and it was still quite wary of openly helping fugitive slaves because of the threat that the United States would retaliate by invading, a very credible fear, given what ultimately happened. So they decided to return John Antoine on the next ship returning to New Orleans. And when John Antoine was returned, and unloaded from the ship and returned in this case to try to be returned to his owner. He pulled out a dagger that someone had given him and stabbed himself.
MULLEN: The kind of desperation that John Antoine felt led many other enslaved people to attempt escape south. Mexico was also accessible over land–but the journey was no less treacherous.
BAUMGARTNER: To escape from Texas or Louisiana to Mexico, enslaved people had to cross near Eastern Texas where there were really a lot of, a lot of white people who were looking out for fugitive slaves. And even when they got past those settlements as plantations in eastern Texas, they had to cross the Nueces strip, the strip of land between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande, which is a dry inhospitable area where many migrants today unfortunately perish. So really, really hard terrain to move across, particularly when you are trying to elude potential pursuers.
MULLEN: One historian estimates that around 4,000 enslaved people found their way to Mexico, one way or another–but it’s really impossible to know with certainty. We also don’t know many Black Americans, free or formerly enslaved, ended up living there permanently. Official Mexican census documents after 1821 don’t record any data about race, ethnicity, or even appearance. But there is one document that Alice used to help us figure out a little bit about Black Americans in Mexico: something called a “carta de seguridad.”
BAUMGARTNER: Any foreigner in Mexico who wanted to temporarily reside and work in Mexico had to apply for a residency permit that was known as a carta de seguridad. If they didn’t get that residency permit, and they were found living and working in Mexico, they would be fined $20, or they would have to spend 10 days in prison. And in order to get that carta de seguridad, they had to submit this certificate of citizenship from the US consul proving that they were citizens of the United States or any other country from which they came.
BAUMGARTNER: What makes the carta de seguridad files so helpful is that they actually do provide a physical description of someone, including their skin color. That’s one of the reasons why it is such a valuable source for study. It’s one of the few sources that gives us that information about someone. It’s incredibly hard to be able to, to even find African Americans in Mexico outside of those diplomatic records, And then from there to know whether they were fugitive slaves or free blacks who were going to Mexico for various reasons.
MULLEN: One thing is clear: if you’re Black, the process of getting documents from the US consul isn’t easy.
BAUMGARTNER: They’re often not people who are going to be the most responsive bureaucrats in general. And a lot of them are coming in from the southern states. Some of them are slaveholders themselves. So even though we don’t have, there was no dispatch that described an African American person coming to the consul and what that experience was like, we can imagine that it was quite difficult to come and get any sort of documentation from the consul. And it was particularly fraught because of the debates within the United States about the citizenship status of African Americans–that there was really no federal definition of citizenship during this time in the United States.
BAUMGARTNER: There were state definitions of citizenship, which obviously varied between the slaveholding and non-slaveholding states, not just about whether people of color could count as citizens, but what those citizenship rights that African Americans could actually take advantage of. That in some places, African Americans were citizens and they were entitled to public education; in other places, they weren’t. Some places they could vote if they met property requirements, other places they couldn’t. The debate about citizenship for African Americans was multilayered in the United States. And when it’s applied internationally, in places like Mexico, it becomes all the more uncertain about whether or not the consuls should be counting African Americans as citizens, which is what the documents they needed were documents to certify that they were citizens. And so it’s raising those documents themselves, required by the Mexican government of all foreigners require that and it raises questions for consuls, and I’m sure would have made that process quite fraught for African Americans themselves.
MULLEN: Consuls responded to Black Americans’ requests for cartas on a case-by-case basis.
BAUMGARTNER: Some consuls would just cross out “citizen” and say “natural” instead, which is kind of like someone who was born in the United States. So they were saying they’re not a citizen, but they’re, they’re close enough for the purposes of the carta de seguridad, some consuls just signed it outright. A lot of the consuls were doing that. And there were some consuls who refused to sign those documents.
MULLEN: But there wasn’t a unified protocol for dealing with Black Americans’ requests for cartas de seguridad. Until 1853. Until Lucien Matthews.
MULLEN: Remember, Matthews had been imprisoned for allegedly speaking out against Santa Anna. He appealed to the US consul in Minatitlan, A.C. Allen, for help. But Allen didn’t know what to do. Was Matthews a citizen–and thus under the protection of the US government–or was he something else? So Allen did what all good consuls do–he punted the issue up the chain.
BAUMGARTNER: So he writes to the Department of State asking for advice and he doesn’t hear anything back. The best he got was a note from another consul in Matamoros in northeastern Mexico, who forwarded another sort of general communication from the State Department which advised the consuls to kind of exercise their own judgment about whether to intercede on the behalf of African Americans, it wasn’t a clear directive one way or another. And so A.C. Allen ultimately decides to help Matthews because he says that he believes that whether an American is a citizen or just a native, that they’re deserving of his protection.
MULLEN: So far, so good: Matthews had gotten his intercessor. Except that Allen’s flurry of correspondence had caught the eye of another diplomat in Mexico: James Gadsden, the US minister in Mexico City.
MULLEN: Gadsden was an enslaver himself, and he did not want Black Americans in Mexico, especially not now that slavery was illegal there.
BAUMGARTNER: He sees the interactions between the consuls and African Americans as a way to undermine Mexico’s promise of freedom to fugitive slaves escaping from the United States to Mexico. That the escape of enslaved people to Mexico was hugely concerning to slaveholders in the United States. And all of their efforts to undermine the promise of freedom in Mexico had come to naught; they had tried to negotiate extradition treaties, Texans have tried to annex some of the northern states of Mexico to declare an independent nation that would be more hospitable to slavery. There were kidnappers who were trying to kidnap enslaved people from Mexico. But there hadn’t really been a diplomatic solution to this problem.
MULLEN: Gadsden decided that the best way to make it harder for Black Americans to settle in Mexico was to deny them that carta de seguridad. He rationalized this decision this way:
They are not recognized as Citizens at home and cannot claim abroad what would be denied to them in the States from whence they have absconded, or voluntarily departed, to seek the protection of a Foreign Government.JAMES GADSDEN (Stephen Bean), in Alice L. Baumgartner, South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War (Basic Books, 2020), 205.
BAUMGARTNER: And so James Gadsden thought that by using the consuls and having them deny the certificates of citizenship to African Americans applying for cartas de seguridad that then fugitive slaves from the United States would not be able to live safely in Mexico.
MULLEN: The thing is, Gadsden was wrong.
BAUMGARTNER: I went through 171 volumes of cartas de seguridad in Mexico City at the National Archives, thinking that this was true that or that the carta de seguridad that would tell us something about the experience of fugitive slaves in Mexico, and at the end of going through all of them, including seeing what would happen for white Americans who apply for cartas de seguridad, that I realized that James Gadsden had been wrong about cartas de seguridad, and actually what they did. That these cartas de seguridad were for people who weren’t planning to stay in Mexico. And in fact, there were documents in that collection at the National Archives of Mexico, that showed that if you did apply for a carta de seguridad it actually undermined your ability to become a naturalized Mexican citizen, because it was seen as an indication that your stay in Mexico is going to be temporary.
MULLEN: Gadsden’s clever plan to keep Black Americans from settling in Mexico was all based on a completely wrongheaded understanding of how Mexican citizenship worked. The Mexican press got wind of this plan–and they made fun of Gadsden. Mexico and the United States were constantly in a game of one-up-manship about who could be more republican, and to the Mexicans, this order completely undercut the Americans’ claim to superiority.
MULLEN: Now some Black Americans who might have been fugitives from slavery did apply for cartas de seguridad. Maybe it was because they didn’t understand the carta system either; maybe it felt like their only option. But Alice believes that the vast majority of Black Americans who applied for this particular form of documentation were free Black Americans who did intend to go back to the USA someday.
MULLEN: Lucien Matthews was probably a free Black American, and he seems to have been in Mexico to stay. Ironically, James Gadsden himself got involved in making sure Matthews was released from prison–maybe to save face with the Mexican press. And then in 1859, Matthews made a claim against the Mexican government for the imprisonment he wrongfully suffered in 1853. And the claim was as a citizen. After that, we don’t know what happened to him. Once he had taken advantage of the protection and advocacy that the US consular system could provide him, he disappeared, perhaps like hundreds of other Black Americans who sought freedom and opportunity in Mexico.
BAUMGARTNER: I remember a moment involved doing my dissertation research where I was so frustrated that it was so hard to follow these people. And then I realized that that was actually a testament to their incredible success at hiding their tracks, not just from the enslavers they were trying to escape but in the process of covering their tracks for them made it harder for historians to find what they were doing.
MULLEN: After the break, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Mexico has come up a lot in our episodes this season. If you’re interested in learning more about the history of the United States and Mexico in a really fun way, I want to recommend that you check out our sponsor, Fort Circle Games. I told you about Fort Circle a few episodes ago when we talked about their game about the First Barbary War. You should definitely check that one out. But they’ve also got a new game about women’s suffrage, and the next game in their lineup will be a game about the Mexican-American War. So buy The Shores of Tripoli, and follow them on Facebook or Twitter so you’ll know when the new game is available to purchase! Thanks, Fort Circle, for sponsoring our show. And now let’s head back to Mexico.
MULLEN: After the Civil War, things were different for Black Americans. They could be full citizens of the United States. But after Reconstruction, the American South was not a particularly safe place for Black Americans to live–so some tried to pick up and start over somewhere else. Mexico was closer, and also less threatening, than many places in the United States. So some started moving into Mexico.
MULLEN: One such person was a man named William Ellis.
KARL JACOBY: He’s born in the 1860s, enslaved and to enslaved parents on a plantation enslavement camp in Victoria, Texas, which is Southern Texas, kind of south of Houston and San Antonio. It’s really kind of right on the line where the plantation zone of the of cotton plantations gives away to the dominant Mexican, sort of cattle ranching, within Texas itself. And so he grows up learning Spanish, and then because of sexual abuse of previous women in his family, he tends to be light-skinned. And so because he knows Spanish, and because of his sort of ambiguous appearance, he’s able to present himself as Mexican.
JACOBY: And so after emancipation, he ends up leaving Victoria because you can’t pass and reinvent yourself in your hometown, where everyone knows your family, right. So he goes first to San Antonio. And then from San Antonio was kind of the hub for dealing with northern Mexico. And that brings him into northern Mexico.
MULLEN: This is Karl Jacoby, who wrote a book about William Ellis. Ellis didn’t go to Mexico without an agenda: he had an idea that might help his fellow Black Americans–and might also make him pretty rich. He wanted to start a colony for Black Americans in Mexico.
JACOBY: Mexico in this period during Porfiriato which coincides more or less with the Gilded Age in the United States. Mexico really was trying to strengthen itself in response to fears of another US invasion, you know, the US in the 1840s had seized half of Mexico and Puerto Rico. Porfirio Diaz was a dictator, but in many respects, was trying to make Mexico stronger to prevent another US invasion. And part of that was getting a larger population. There was a sense that Mexico had lots of natural resources, but not enough people, particularly not enough skilled people to unlock all of those natural resources. So the way that this is labeled in Mexico is primarily around this idea of colonization, because just having people immigrate, the way that they did to the US, sort of, you know, just jump on a ship or whatever.
JACOBY: It wasn’t working, Mexico was basically losing the immigration contest as you were between the United States and Argentina, to a lesser extent. And so it had to do these more ambitious things where it would actually give colonists or immigrants, they would give them sort of special rights to land special exemptions from taxes, exemptions from being Drafted for Military service, all those sorts of things. And so these things were called colonies. I think what’s really interesting is that there’s another discourse that’s taking place in the United States about colonization, which is about expelling basically African Americans out of the United States some largely this has been done by white Americans who have this vision of sort of ethnically cleansing the United States.
There are some African Americans who also just feel that United States is so irredeemably racist that they need to look for new horizons outside. And so the project that I wrote about with William Ellis is really interesting because he’s the first person who brings these two streams of colonization together. The idea that the United States is sort of encouraging African Americans to leave, Mexico is actually looking for people to settle, and they’re right next to each other. So why not build on it in this particular way?
MULLEN: Ellis planned this colony in Mexico to be specifically for Black Americans.
JACOBY: Ellis gets his first colonization contract in 1888-1889. And even though the colonization contract doesn’t signify, neither does the colonization contract in 1895, per se, signify the race of the people are going to be coming, a lot of people sort of knowing Ellis’s background can guess. And the way that he ends up advertising and the people he’s trying to appeal to in the US, they can more or less, imagine the kind of colonists that he’s going to bring as he’s really targeting this towards African Americans, as in creating a new escape hatch for them.
MULLEN: So now Ellis just had to get the colonists to Mexico–to a colony called Tlahualilo. It’s not as hard to get them there as it was for Black people before the Civil War. By now, there’s a pretty robust railroad infrastructure. In spring of 1895, between 700 and 800 African-American families arrived on the hacienda, the estate where they would be given land to farm and places to live. They’d be working for a company that was trying to cultivate cotton–a skill that many of these people already possessed.
MULLEN: Now this agreement between Ellis and the Mexican government was meant to bring in new families who would settle permanently in Mexico, and become fully Mexican. And it seemed like that’s what was going to happen. One of the colonists described Mexico as:
“A grand country for the negro race; the lands are rich, climate good and healthful. Our People here are much pleased with the country and are satisfied and happy. Mr. Ellis, the gentleman who brought us here, has done in every particular all that he promised to do. Each and every man is his own man and his own boss.”A.A. ADAMS (Malcolm Law). Tuskaloosa Journal. May 15, 1895.
MULLEN: But six months later, the story had changed. Through a series of misfortunes, possibly poor management, and just plain bad luck, the colony was in bad trouble. And this is where we return to the consuls.
JACOBY: It was looking at consular reports that I first discovered William Ellis. So when I was in graduate school, one of my advisors knowing I was interested in the Borderlands and US Mexico relations, said, “there are these consular reports over in the library, which no one’s really looked at, why don’t you just go look at them and write me a little short research paper.” And so this whole book that took me about 10 years to write about William Ellis basically was that little short research paper But what was interesting looking at the consular records is a lot of them are very economic. And I was flipping through and you know, it’s like how much coal is shipped from here or whatever. But then all of a sudden, in mid-1895, I’m finding these records of African American colonists. This is in the sort of border between Durango and Coahuila, northern Mexico, are coming to the US consul and saying, “we were on this hacienda in Tlahualilo and we want to go back to the United States.”
MULLEN: The St. Paul Daily Globe reported on July 25, 1895:
News has been received at the state department from the colony of American negroes who went into Mexico some time ago and settled on a tract of land near Tlahualilo. A telegram was received at the department this morning from United States Consul Sparks at Piedras Negras, stating that the negroes are in a deplorable condition. These emigrants went from the Southern states, mostly from Alabama and the Carolinas, under most alluring promises from emigrant agents of comfortable homes in Mexico, but from all accounts they have been ill-treated and suffered great hardships from the time of their arrival in that country. Consul Sparks says the negroes live scattered for miles along the railroad, without friends, funds or food, living, on mesquite beans and brackish water.St. Paul Daily Globe.(David McKenzie) (Saint Paul, Minn.), 25 July 1895. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress.
JACOBY: And there’s actually rather interesting conundrum for the consuls, which is to say that just before all of these African Americans had left the United States, had an essence, bid Good riddance, the United States who were started trying to flee, you know the rising Jim Crow, and segregation in the United States. And Mexico not having formal segregation was a very appealing place. And something that had been achieved in the southern press, a sense that African Americans are leaving, and actually this labor source that we actually need, even though we’ve exploited them tremendously. It’s a real threat to our economy. All of a sudden, the sense is will, what citizenship do these people have? Are they still US citizens or not? And what responsibility does the United States owe if they now want to go back to the United States?
MULLEN: These colonists weren’t just disillusioned. Everything that could have gone wrong, did go wrong.
JACOBY: I think there’s several things that make the colony in 1895 fall apart. One is that, you know, William Ellis is presenting himself as a sort of elite, Mexican, and he operates in these very elite circles. So he’s familiar with all sorts of leading figures in Porfirio Diaz’s administration. And that’s one kind of experience of being a Mexican or being in Mexico. But basically, you know, the people that he’s bringing in from Alabama and Georgia, they tend to be sharecroppers or coal miners from those regions. So they’re working class, very poor, and they’re basically being brought to this hacienda that’s trying to cultivate cotton on a really large scale. And Ellis is able to persuade them, you know, if you want to grow cotton, who better to grow cotton than African Americans who’ve really made the US the leading cotton producer. And that’s not really a position with lots of upward mobility. So there’s, in some ways, the, although there’s none of the formal barriers to like land ownership, and there’s none of the Jim Crow just vicious segregation that you would have in the United States, there’s really not too much opportunity for upward growth. So that’s one problem. And the other problem is that then sort of contemporaneously and with very just bad luck, of a new and very virulent strain of smallpox breaks out among the colonists and they get very sick. And I think those two things, make them just want to leave before they even harvest their first crop and get their first set of money.
MULLEN: Up to the point where things started to fall apart, the US consuls knew very little about this Black colony. It’s possible that William Ellis distanced himself–and the people in his colony–on purpose, to keep from revealing too much about himself, or attracting too much attention.
JACOBY: In the US, he’s always claiming to be a Mexican. You know, there’s no advantage to being a dark skin, or darker-skinned person in the US. In Mexico, he actually will claim often to be a US citizen in Mexico, because during the Porfiriato they’re trying to attract us investment. And so there’s actually an advantage to being a US citizen in Mexico. So the irony of his existence is that he’s a Mexican in the US and he’s an American, or US citizen in Mexico. He’s always the fish out of water. But he’s found that by being that marginal sort of liberal figure, he can always have this slight advantage wherever he is.
JACOBY: I think he’s a little leery of what if they start asking too many questions of sort of being found out and so he has a very hands-off relationship with them.
MULLEN: So when the other Americans in the colony go to entreat the consul to help them…
JACOBY: William Ellis doesn’t go into that office. This is the issue of maintaining his masquerade as I think he needs to keep us sort of arm’s distance to some of the US officials there.
MULLEN: Ellis’s hands-off approach meant that the consuls were pretty blindsided by the problems in the colony.
JACOBY: The consuls are conscious of the fact that there’s this big experiment in trying to cultivate cotton that’s going on in northern Mexico. But then, from everything I saw on the reports, they’re very much caught by surprise when the colonists leave the colony and want to go back to the United States. They’re worried that the colonists might get, ugly sorts of ideas about black criminality, that they might get violent or riot in Mexico and make the US look bad, all these sorts of things. And then they get all these fears, that the colonists will bring disease to the United States and how should they deal with that particular issue.
MULLEN: What the colonists needed from the consuls was not permission–the borders between Mexico and the United States are very much open during this period. But they needed money–money and a train to get them back to the United States. Taking care of stranded, destitute Americans is part of the consul’s job–though usually they don’t have to take care of them 700 or 800 at a time.
MULLEN: Eventually, the consuls, in particular Jesse Sparks, did help get the colonists moving toward the United States. But the paperwork they actually needed to re-enter the country couldn’t come from the consuls.
JACOBY: In some ways, there wasn’t that much documentation that was needed for them to get back into the states. I think because the government was so concerned about disease, they have it very tightly controlled and the one thing that the actual documentation that they did need was to leave this internment camp, as it were, that was on the border, and then go back to their, for their actual homes in Alabama and Georgia, then they needed something that basically said that they were free of disease. And so that became the document that was key. And that’s actually something that’s provided. I believe, not by the consuls.
JACOBY: Once they reach the border, they’re not just allowed to return to, they’re mainly from Alabama and Georgia, and they’re not just returned. This is one of the first cases that we’ve been able to identify of the US sort of casting the border as a quarantine zone or a sanitation zone. And so they’re all in essence quarantined in really terrible conditions outside of Eagle Pass, which is across from the Piedras Negras in Mexico. The Marine Health Service actually, in essence experiments on them, it’s a sort of early precursor in some ways to some of these, or not precursor because there was experimentation on African Americans before. But it does predate say the Tuskegee experiment. Where they do these experiments trying to use new, and actually turns out to be ineffective, technologies for treating smallpox, which they use on the colonists.
MULLEN: Ellis himself continued to use his ability to code-switch between Black, White, American, Mexican, even Cuban, to make his way in the world. Though the colony was an abject failure, its existence set Ellis on the road to wealth, divided between New York’s Wall Street and Mexico City. Just like Lucien Matthews, Ellis used the consular system to his advantage when it was useful–and he claimed American citizenship when it was convenient. But when it wasn’t useful, he shook it off and assumed other identities that gave him many more opportunities than he might have had as the son of a poor enslaved Texan.
MULLEN: And that’s where we’re going to leave it for this season of Consolation Prize. We’ll be back in the fall with more stories of consuls’ triumphs and foibles. Thanks for traveling the world with us this season, and we’ll see you then.
MULLEN: Consolation Prize is a podcast of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. This episode was produced by me, Abby Mullen, and Brenna Reilley. Brenna is our undergraduate producer, and we’re so sad to say goodbye to her after this episode, as she graduates and goes on to bigger and better things. I want to shout-out all our other producers from this season as well: Deepthi Murali, Megan Brett, and Kris Stinson. This show would literally have not made it off the ground without all of you. Thanks. Our music for this episode, and for every episode this season, is by the fantastic Andrew Cote. If you haven’t checked out his other music on Spotify, you’re missing out.
Our expert guests for this episode were Alice Baumgartner and Karl Jacoby. Our voice actors were Jeremiah Dew, God’s Will Katchoua, Stephen Bean, Malcolm Law, and David McKenzie. Jeremiah has a one-man show that you should definitely check out.
And that’s it for this season! We’ll see you in the fall.
- Baumgartner, Alice. South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War. New York: Basic Books, 2020.
- Horne, Gerald. Black and Brown: African Americans and the Mexican Revolution, 1910-1920. New York, NY: New York University Press, 2005.
- Jacoby, Karl. The Strange Career of William Ellis: The Texas Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2017.
- Nichols, James David. The Limits of Liberty : Mobility and the Making of the Eastern U.S.-Mexico Border. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018.