So apparently, Sarah Rector was too rich to be black, interesting.
Sarah was the descendant of slaves Benjamin and Mollie McQueen, owned by the Creek tribe of Native Americans. After the Civil War, her grandparents were freed and granted tribal rights. After the Civil War, tribal reconstruction treaties forced the Indian Territory residents to abolish slavery and give tribal rights to the newly freed slaves, who became known as Creek Freedmen.
Under an 1866 treaty between the United States and five Native American tribes, the freedmen received land allotments of 160 acres each — including the children in what became known as the Trail of Tears.
But former slaves didn’t get the best land that was reserved for the Creek. Sarah and her siblings each received separate allotment of parcels of land. Sarah’s parcel was valued at $556.50, and was 60 miles from where she lived.
The land was considered unsuitable for farming. Sarah’s family nearly lost her ‘infertile’ parcel because they had difficulty paying the $30 annual property tax. But that land allotment, would later make Sarah one of the first African-American, female millionaires in the US.
In 1910, Sarah’s father, Joseph, petitioned the Muskogee County Court to allow them to sell it. But because the land was granted by a treaty between the federal government and the Creek Nation, they weren’t allowed to sell it, and Joseph was forced to come up with the property taxes.
In 1911, Joseph Rector leased the parcel to the Standard Oil Company. No one knew if the land contained oil until 1913, when an independent oil driller found a “gusher” on Sarah’s property. Suddenly, her land was producing 2,500 barrels of oil a day, and the 11-year-old Sarah Rector was instantly rich.
In 1914, she paid more income taxes in the state of Oklahoma than any other resident — and she was only 12.
The Oklahoma legislature went so far as to declare Sarah Rector a white person.
As reported in the Chicago Defender,
“The white people have become so alarmed at the enormous wealth of this young girl that they do not like such wealth belonging to a girl of Afro American blood.”
So, the state of Oklahoma declared Sarah white, which allowed her to avoid Jim Crow laws that banned black people from first-class railroad cars.
As soon as the Standard Oil Company struck oil in 1913, Sarah started receiving a daily income of $300. That’s the modern equivalent of around $7,500, every single day. But the government didn’t want a child who was descended from slaves to have access to that kind of money.
The law discriminated against Native Americans, black adults, and children who were citizens of Indian Territory with significant property and money, so they were assigned a “well-respected” white guardian to oversee their assets.
But, of course, the system was corrupt, and many of the so-called guardians stole money or property from the people they were supposed to be helping. Luckily, Sarah Rector had some powerful supporters in her corner.
Sarah’s story made headlines around the world. As word spread that a young black girl in Oklahoma owned a fortune in oil, men from all corners of the globe started writing to Sarah Rector, who was not even a teenager yet, and proposing marriage.
Letters poured in requesting loans from the wealthy girl, or simply asking her for money.
On January 15, 1914, a rather strange headline appeared in The Kansas City Star: “Oil made pickaninny rich – Oklahoma girl with $15,000 a month gets many proposals – four white men in Germany want to marry the negro child that they might share her fortune.” she was only 12 years old at the time.
As soon as the world learned of the pre-teen millionaire, newspapers started running sensational stories about Sarah Rector — some of which weren’t true at all.
The Denver Star, called Sarah “a Negro girl ten years old,” and they reported on that Sarah’s income taxes were the highest in the entire state of Oklahoma, based on her profit of over $112,000 a year — the equivalent of around $3 million today.
The Ottumwa Tri-Weekly Courier, an Iowa newspaper, wrote that Sarah was under “sympathetic guardianship,” and promised that the girl would receive “the best education of which she is capable.”
The Chicago Defender, the country’s most influential black newspaper, quickly took up Sarah Rector’s case. In 1914, they published an article saying that Sarah’s estate was being mismanaged, and Sarah herself lived in a shanty and dressed in rags. The story called out the white guardians of Sarah’s estate as contributors to the problem.
The coverage caught the attention of national black leaders like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, who reached out to Sarah’s family to improve their situation. Soon, the NAACP got involved to protect the rights of black children.
The NAACP stepped in to work with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the United States Children’s Bureau to correct the mismanagement of Sarah’s estate. As James C. Waters, Jr., an agent for the NAACP, wrote:
Is it not possible to have her cared for in a decent manner and by people of her own race, instead of by a member of a race which would deny her and her kind the treatment accorded a good yard dog?
To make sure Sarah’s situation never repeated, W. E. B. DuBois also created a Children’s Department at the NAACP to investigate claims that white guardians were mistreating black children.
Booker T. Washington reached out to the Rector family and offered to help with Sarah’s education. She moved to Alabama to enroll at the Tuskegee Institute’s boarding school, which was designed for teenagers.
Washington founded the Tuskegee Institute, later Tuskegee University, and advocated tirelessly for black civil rights.
After graduating from her boarding school, Sarah went on to attend the Tuskegee Institute, today Tuskegee University. When she turned 18, Sarah left Tuskegee and moved with her family to Kansas City, Missouri. She was an adult and a well-established millionaire, and she settled into life in the big city.
In Missouri, she purchased a house on 12th Street. The house is still there and is known as the Rector House. Along with certain “extravagances,” she was said to have purchased a limousine, hired a chauffeur and commissioned him to drive neighborhood children to a nearby elementary school.
Sarah also managed to own stocks, bonds, a boarding house and a bakery.
She got married in Kansas and had three sons, Kenneth, Jr., Leonard, and Clarence.
Sarah Rector died at the age of 65 on July 22, 1967. Nothing was known of the state of her wealth at the time of the passing.