By Karl Jacoby
June 5, 2016
When the path to upward mobility for thousands of free black Americans was south of the border, Mexico stopped just short of calling for their own wall.
If there is one issue that has steered 2016 in a startling direction, it has been immigration. The GOP’s strategy to increase its appeal to Latinos after Mitt Romney’s upset in 2012 quickly unraveled once the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, charged that Mexico was sending “criminals, drug dealers, rapists” to the United States. Before long, chants of “Build that wall!”—a reference to Trump’s promise to construct a “beautiful” concrete wall along the Mexican border—could be heard at political rallies, high school sporting events and beyond. The GOP’s concerns about inclusion, it seems, pale in comparison to Americans’ anxieties about jobs, crime, national security and the sense that there is a teeming mass of people desperate to burst across the border.
It hasn’t always been this way; for much of American history, the U.S.-Mexico border has been largely unprotected. Only in 1891 did the United States start deporting illegal immigrants (a category at the time limited principally to Chinese workers as well as felons, paupers and the insane), and it wasn’t until 1924 that Congress formed the Border Patrol. And at one point, remarkably, our contemporary debate was even flipped: Hordes of Americans wanted to escape their bleak prospects for a better life—and the place they wanted to flee to was Mexico.
But Mexico didn’t want them. The story unfolded in the late 19th century, in the form of a little-known black migration scheme to the low-lying, underdeveloped parts of south and central Mexico—Veracruz, Oaxaca, Guerrero, Michoacán and San Luis Potosi—and was spearheaded by a man sparingly remembered by history. He intended to relocate thousands of black families to start a new colony in Mexico, which would have radically changed the demographics and the economy of that region, if not all of Mexico. The plan provoked sensationalist, often racist, reports in the Mexican press—one warned of a “race war”—and fiery fights in the country’s Senate. In the end, it failed—no such colony was ever settled. But the history lesson, of a time when our current debate was flipped on its head, is a timely reminder of those fluid identities, and just how easily these centuries-old, deeply ingrained fears can be stoked—on either side of the border.
Born as a slave in 1864 on a cotton plantation in the small South Texas town of Victoria, William Henry Ellis managed in his early 20s to transform himself into a successful merchant in San Antonio. To do so, however, he had to craft an alternative persona for himself as a Mexican named Guillermo Enrique Eliseo (his name translated into Spanish) to gain entry to the all-white business settings that would have otherwise been closed to him. To further his ethnic charades, Ellis cultivated a showy Mexican-style mustache, dressed in the Mexican fashion, and used the fluent Spanish that he had learned in Victoria as a child.
In the 19th century, during the administration of President Porifirio Díaz, Mexico was hoping to modernize its economy by attracting more immigrants. Ellis did much of his business across the border in Mexico, and he saw the United States’ southern neighbor, with its lack of legal segregation, as a place of great promise not only for himself but for other African-Americans as well. He thus set in motion in 1889 an ambitious plan to facilitate the large-scale migration of African-Americans to Mexico.
Taking advantage of new railroad connections between the U.S. and Mexico, Ellis journeyed to Mexico City. Tucked in his luggage, he carried 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. Once in the Mexican capital, Ellis persuaded Pacheco, a grizzled former general who had lost both an arm and a leg in Mexico’s recent war against the French-backed emperor Maximilian, to grant him a 10-year contract to colonize up to twenty thousand settlers in Mexico. Although the race and nationality of the colonists was not specified in the contract—only that each colonist would have a certificate attesting to their “morality, honesty and diligence”—Ellis’s comments to the press left little doubt that he 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 19th century. Even as they defended the right of blacks to live wherever they pleased, most black leaders, from Frederick Douglass to Norris Wright Cuney, the influential chairman of the Texas’ Republican Party, decried efforts to relocate African-Americans (a movement known in the language of the day as colonization). These figures charged that colonization not only diminished the pool of African-American voters in the United States; 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 colonization],” contended 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.”
Relocating to Mexico, however, did not necessarily represent a retreat from politics in Ellis’s eyes. Rather, it highlighted the shortcomings of Reconstruction—in particular, the federal government’s failure to support blacks’ economic aspirations. Whites blamed the poverty in which blacks found themselves trapped after Emancipation on a lack of work ethic. Ellis, in contrast, knew that the problem lay not with African-American character but rather with their lack of access to land, the foundation of wealth in a predominantly agricultural society. If the place of their birth would not facilitate black access to property, perhaps Mexico, in its desire to attract immigrants, would. “The idea of Mr. Ellis,” explained one observer, “is that the colonists will become self-sustaining farmers.”
Colonization tended to draw its support from the most marginalized members of the black community—those, unsurprisingly, who suffered the worst oppressions and therefore had the least to lose in relocating to an unfamiliar land. Even before Ellis finalized his contract with the Mexican government, he had compiled a list of several hundred families from four adjoining Texas counties— Fort Bend, Matagorda, Brazoria and Wharton, all “places where the colored people have been having trouble” in Ellis’s apt phrase—who had expressed interest in moving to Mexico. These counties were home to the largest African-American majorities in all of Texas. Not only had these conditions led unsympathetic whites to dub the region “Senegambia”; it also spawned fierce racial strife as local whites endeavored, despite the demographic imbalance, to “free . . . themselves from Negro rule” by threatening the area’s black elected officials.
For Mexicans, the question of colonization had two profoundly different meanings. For a country that had long perceived itself at risk of being swallowed up by its more populous northern neighbor, colonization signified the attracting of new immigrants. As the Mexico City newspaper El Siglo Diez y Nueve asserted in 1881, colonization was one of Mexico’s “great projects.” New immigrants would “not only increase the scant population that we possess,” but also aid in “the exploitation of our agricultural elements, whose richness will pour out . . . in the principal markets of the world.”
Despite such rhetoric, the total number of immigrants to Mexico remained modest. Commentators reported that even though “representatives of most every other nation are also found in Mexico, such as Turks, Arabs, Greeks and Swedes . . . they are in small numbers and scattered all over the country.” Forced to compete with the United States in immigration as in so much else, Mexico decided in the late 1870s to adopt more aggressive measures. Porfirio Díaz’s government negotiated 19 colonization contracts between 1878 and 1882, offering a generous package of subsidies—free passage, land, tools and freedom from taxes, custom duties and military service—to organizers who agreed to plant colonies of immigrants on Mexican soil, especially in the republic’s less-inhabited, more vulnerable northern states. Once this initial investment primed the pump, it was hoped that an increased flow of immigrants would come to Mexico on their own accord.
The Mexican government identified a range of ethnic groups, from Egyptians to Canary Islanders, as possible colonists. But it placed particular emphasis on attracting immigrants from Italy, who supposedly shared Mexico’s “Latin” identity. “The Europeans who most identify with our habits and our way of life are, without doubt . . . the Italians,” opined one observer.
The government’s plans, however, did not produce the hoped for results, with most immigrants still preferring the U.S. or Argentina over Mexico. “Some of the assisted colonists, especially Italians,” reported the U.S. consul at Matamoros, “have walked and begged their way across and out of the country.”
These disappointing results created an opening for Ellis. For reasons of race and nationality alike, Mexico had never viewed African-Americans as a desirable group for colonization. In 1879, the intellectual Francisco Pimentel contended that the presence of blacks would “increase one of the ills our country suffers from, the heterogeneity of population.” The Mexican press echoed this stance, with commentators contending that, given the “natural differences” dividing the races and Mexico’s need to “improve its social, economic, and political status . . . the immigration that we need is that of the enterprising, robust, and civilized white race.”
Yet despite this hostility towards peoples of African descent, not long after Ellis’ arrival in Mexico City reports began to circulate that “Gen. Pacheco, Minister of Public Works, is greatly interested in Ellis’s plan, and heartily in favor of granting the concession.” If this startling departure from the Díaz administration’s earlier goal of whitening Mexico’s population offers compelling evidence of Ellis’ charm and powers of persuasion, it also underscores the challenges he faced in making his plans a reality. Pacheco’s proposed contract restricted Ellis’s colonies to low-lying regions of Veracruz, Oaxaca, Guerrero, Michoacán and San Luis Potosi, all places where tropical diseases had long hindered development. “The object of this colonization is to populate and cultivate the hot and unhealthy places along our coasts that cannot be cultivated by our nation’s inhabitants,” asserted Mexican officials. “It will be convenient to see, as way of a test, if by bringing some blacks to these coasts it will be possible to transform them from uncultivated to productive.” In addition, the Department of Fomento structured its contract so that rather than making a large initial investment, as had been done with Italian immigrants, most of Mexico’s contributions came later, after Ellis had established one thousand colonists in the republic and the president determined that the newcomers had farmed or mined successfully for at least a year. Such measures imposed on Ellis’s colony the greatest constraints of any such project in Mexico. “No colonization company,” stated Mexican politician Alfonso Lancáster-Jones, “has been more restricted, more limited in its privileges and its rights.”
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