Elsberry's father worked at Stockham Valves & Fittings. Julius attended the Kingston School and Thomas School. Shortly after graduating from Industrial High School in 1938, he enlisted in the United States Navy. Because he was black, Ellsberry was assigned to the Navy's segregated messman/steward branch.
Ellsberry was serving aboard the USS Oklahoma (BB-37) as a Mess Attendant First Class when it was bombed by Japanese fighter planes in a surprise attack. He and 413 other crewmen, including fellow black Alabamian Johnnie C. Laurie, were killed aboard the battleship. He was awarded a posthumous Purple Heart in honor of his sacrifice.
A Navy press release followed shortly after the announcement of Elsberry's death describing the heroism of another black seaman, then unidentified. Mess Attendant Second Class Doris "Dorie" Miller assumed control of a deck gun on the USS West Virginia after the gunner was killed and helped defend the ship. Media reports at the time often credited Ellsberry with Miller's heroism and the misidentification persists.
The Birmingham World labeled Ellsberry "the Crispus Attucks of World War II" (Cronenberg - 2003). Birmingham's Black community raised over $300,000 in war bond purchases toward the completion of a B-24 bomber named The Spirit of Ellsberry. (Bodnar - 1996)
Ellsberry Park off Finley Boulevard was dedicated in his honor in 1979. A marker honoring Elsberry's sacrifice has also been erected in Kelly Ingram Park, which is named for fellow Navy veteran Kelly Ingram, the first American killed in World War I. An abridged copy of a letter Ellsberry sent from Pearl Harbor to his friend Dodson Curry on May 31, 1941, asking about getting an Industrial High School class ring, was reproduced in an aluminum casting at the Alabama Veterans Memorial.
- Bodnar, John E. (1996) Bonds of Affection: Americans Define Their Patriotism. Princeton University Press. p. 208 ISBN 0691043965
- Cronenberg, Allen (2003) Forth to the Mighty Conflict: Alabama and World War II. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press. p. 12. ISBN 0817350276
- Miller, Richard E. (2004) The Messman Chronicles: African-Americans in the U.S. Navy, 1932-1943. Annapolis, Maryland: US Naval Institute Press ISBN 9781557505392
- Spencer, Thomas (December 7, 2010) "Remembering Pearl Harbor: Retired Birmingham doctor honors first black Alabamian to die in WWII." Birmingham News