Passing the Line

Who was Guillermo Eliseo?

Such was the question that any number of people asked themselves during the Gilded Age as this enigmatic figure flitted in and out of an astonishing array of the era’s most noteworthy events—scandalous trials, unexpected disappearances, diplomatic controversies. To many, the answer was obvious. The tall, exquisitely dressed figure with the carefully coifed mustache, was an upper-class Mexican—in fact “the wealthiest resident of the City of Mexico” and “a prominent Mexican politician.” Continue reading…

Was W.H. Ellis a Con Man?

The first reviews of The Strange Career of William Ellis have begun to appear.  One early review, which appeared in Kirkus, a journal for librarians, was enthusiastic, terming the book “a remarkable historical detective story.”  However, the anonymous reviewer also saw fit to conclude that “Ellis was surely a kind of confidence man.”


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How Many People Passed?

Henry Louis Gates just posted a fascinating article on his website “The Root” that attempts to answer the age old question of how widespread black-to-white passing has been in the United States.  Over the years, various observers before have attempted the challenge of counting the uncountable: coming up with a numerical total for what was a quintessentially veiled activity.  Sociologists working in the early twentieth century, comparing the actual count of African Americans in the census with the expected count, computed that some 25,000 blacks were passing every year.  Walter White of the NAACP, who often passed (temporarily) to investigate lynchings in the South, estimated in the 1940s that the total was closer to 12,000.  Other commentators admitted that “[n]o one, of course, can estimate the number of men and women with Negro blood who have thus ‘gone over to white,’” although they hastened to add that “the number must be large.”

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When Hope and History Rhyme

One of my favorite poems is “The Cure at Troy” by the late Seamus Heaney, which reads in part:

History says don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
on the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
and cures and healing wells.

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Crowdsourcing History

One of my paramount goals in creating this website was to investigate how the internet might allow historians to change how they conduct research.  By this, I don’t mean just looking at documents on-line instead of traveling in person to distant archives (although I’ve certainly done my fair share of this for my current project and have found it very helpful).  Rather, I hoped to harness the power of the internet to see if one could discuss writing problems and generate research leads with a much larger and more diverse community than is usually available to scholars in the academy.

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Juneteenth and the History of Slavery

“Juneteenth” is a holiday that memorializes June 19, 1865, when Union forces finally arrived in Texas and declared the end of slavery in the Lone Star state.  It is also a telling reminder of how different slavery was in Texas.

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Ellis and Ethiopia

What brought W.H. Ellis to suddenly switch his focus from Mexico to Ethiopia in the early 1900s?

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Lost in Mexico City

W.H. Ellis arrived in Mexico City for the first time sometime in the 1880s.  It is tantalizing to imagine what the experience must have been like for a young African American from Texas to stroll along the colonial alameda or the grand new boulevard of el Paseo de la Reforma of what was even then one of the largest and most cosmopolitan urban centers in North America.  What did he think of the Mexico City elite, with their European fashions and showy carriages?  Of the district’s urban poor?  Of Mexico City’s vast, bustling markets?  Its elegant opera houses?

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San Juan Hill

One of the greatest insights of the past years in historical scholarship is that evidence need not be only documents.  Many forms of material culture can also help illuminate the past, if only we know how to read them.  Living in New York, I am constantly reminded of this fact.  Manhattan is a city of neighborhoods, each with its own flavor and vantage point on the past.  The neighborhood where I currently live, for example, Morningside Heights, was built in the early 1900s.  It features many references, however, to events from half a century before: Grant’s tomb, memorials to Frederick Douglass, Carl Schurz, and the like.  The reason is not hard to discern: the members of the nineteenth century’s “greatest generation” were passing away at the turn of the century, and Americans sought to solidify their legacy of these figures in the very bricks and mortar of their city.

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Django on the Border

It is, we all know, foolish to look to Hollywood for history lessons.  Part of the trouble is cinema itself.  Moviemaking, for all its undeniable power, is an art form that struggles to express the ambiguities and multiple possibilities inherent to interpreting primary sources. Married to Hollywood’s love of drama, this tendency has encouraged the creation of strong, simple narratives, from which all complexity—the essence of good history—has been drained away. Continue reading…