“A strange thing happened on the way to the forum”
A Legacy Moment in US-Ethiopia Relations – 1903
— On this date on September 24, 1923, African-American entreprenuer William Henry Ellis was reported to have passed away at age 59 in Mexico City.
Ellis is remembered as being the first known African American to have met with Ethiopia’s King Menelik II in 1903.
Time Magazine reported Ellis’ earthly departure in its October 3 obituary section. Time Magazine noted Ellis “was one of the most remarkable men who ever acted as agent for the State Department”.
It added he “was known chiefly for the famous incident in which he delivered a commercial Treaty from this country to King Menelik of Abyssinia.”
Born in Victoria, Texas in 1864, Ellis claimed to be of Cuban descent, and was said to “style himself Guillermo Enrique Eliseol”.
Ellis was actively involved in various ventures, one of which drew controversy in the 1890s with his proposal to create an African American work colony in Mexico.
Ellis would later become widely known as making his richest as a Wall Street stockbroker.
While abroad in London, Ellis came into contact with Ras Makonnen(father of future Emperor Haile Selassie) during the coronation of King Edward VII, and was invited to visit Ethiopia –an offer Ellis eagerly accepted.
Ellis returned to the United States and prepared his enterprising plans for Ethiopia.
The Baltimore Sun carried a September 6, 1903 story headlined “New York Broker Starts To Make Abyssinia A Nation For Negroes”, reporting that Ellis had sailed today on board the steamship Lucania “to commercialize Abyssinia and make it the great country of Ethiopians prophesied in the Bible.”
The Milwaukee Journal on September 7, 1903 called Ellis “the Moor of Wall-st”, reporting his plan “to commercialize the country and make it a modern Ethiopia, where all negroes of the world may find refuge”.
Ellis’s hometown paper the Victoria Advocate posted on September 21, citing the Pennslyvainia Grit, that Ellis “will establish a national bank and systemize the legal, military and commercial affairs of the country.
“Mr. Ellis will move upon the Abyssinian capital with great pomp. He will engage a great caravan, equipped–so runs the tale-at a cost of about $20,000 and move slowly through the country, so that the tribesmen may get an idea of the wonderful importance of the strange who goes among them.”
As it would turn out, Ellis would share his voyage with that of of Kent. J. Loomis, the brother of Assistant Secretary of State Francis B. Loomis, whom was entrusted with the official treaty of commerce between the United States of America and His Majesty Menelik II.
According to the 1903 Skinner Mission to Ehiopia & a Century of American-Ethiopian Relations,” written by Robert Peet Skinner. Skinner wrote ” While crossing the English Channel, Loomis reportedly was drinking heavily, fell overboard and drown. The State Department then delegrated Ellis to deliever the
treaty. Ellis did so and returned to Washington late in 1904 with the copy signed by Emperor Menelik.”
(Photo: No Photograph of Willaim H. Ellis to be yet found. Here is the Ethiopian Menelik II Birr EE1895 (1903) coin)