Karl Jacoby's The Strange Career of William Ellis is a testament to the power of tenacious research and beautiful writing. The book tells the remarkable story of how William Ellis, an African American born into slavery in South Texas, rose to wealth and privilege by crossing borders of race, class, and nationality.

Ellis began life enslaved on a Victoria, Texas, plantation in 1864 but grew up in the fluid postemancipation era when new opportunities and harsh realities surrounded African Americans throughout the United States. The arrival of the railroad in Victoria in 1882 opened the world to Ellis, and he soon relocated to San Antonio, where he reinvented himself as Guillermo Enrique Eliseo, a Mexican-born international dealer in cotton and hides. By seizing on his fluency in Spanish and dressing the part of a high-born Latino businessman, Ellis began a life of...

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