Honor Black History Month by learning the rags to riches story of Sarah Rector
Sarah Rector, the daughter of Creek Indian freedmen, rose from humble beginnings in a wind-swept two-room cabin near the tiny town of Twine in Indian Territory to become the richest Black girl in America when she was 11 years old. Her parents were African American members of the Muscogee Creek Nation. It included five tribes who were relocated by the U.S. government using a combination of bribery and force from their former homelands in the Southeast to what would become Oklahoma so that new white settlers could take over their rich land.
Sarah was born on March 3, 1902. Her great-grandparents had been slaves of the Creeks in their ancestral homelands in Alabama and Georgia, but after the Civil War, Creek slaves were freed. The Creeks called them Estelvste—the Black People. Both of Sarah’s grandfathers had fought with the Union Army during the Civil War, and when Indian Territory became Oklahoma in 1907 the Dawes Allotment Act divided Creek lands among tribal members and their former slaves. Each member of the Rector family received a 160-acre allotment of rocky, unproductive land deemed “unsuitable for farming.” Had the U.S. government known at the time what flowed beneath Sarah’s rocky acres, they likely would have reconsidered.
To raise enough money to pay the $30 annual tax bill, Sarah’s father, Joseph Rector, leased her allotment to the Devonian Oil Company of Pittsburg in 1911. Two years later, wildcatter B.B. Jones struck a gusher on Sarah’s land that produced 2,500 barrels a day, which gave Sarah a whopping daily income of $300. When her fortune topped $10,000 a month at the age of 13, a probate judge appointed a white guardian for her although both her parents were still alive. Her guardian, T.J. Porter, was a family friend, and although rumors spread that he was mismanaging Sarah’s money, an NAACP investigation proved the claims false. In fact, Sarah’s parents had selected Porter as guardian of their daughter’s wealth, and he received only 2% of her total income.
Newspaper articles reporting Sarah’s rags to riches story and the NAACP investigation sparked a number of international marriage proposals when Sarah was just 13, some from white men seeking to control her growing oil empire. When she began attending Tuskegee Institute’s Children’s School at the suggestion of Booker T. Washington, a guard managed to prevent her abduction by a group intending to hold her for ransom. There are few records of abuses and attempted abuses suffered by Sarah and other child landowners, but her wealth and property rights made her a target for exploitation.
In the 1920s, the Rector family moved to Kansas City where Sarah graduated from Lincoln High School. Her issues with disputed guardianship continued in Kansas City, but most stemmed from greed and not legitimate concern for her welfare. When Sarah reached legal age, a judge found her mentally sound and capable of managing her own affairs. At this point, her lawyers claimed that she owned $750,000 in oil properties along with other assets that pushed her worth to over $1 million.
At the height of her wealth, Sarah owned Rector Mansion, a large stone house on East 12th Street in Kansas City, and the entire block surrounding it. She drove a green and black Cadillac, later adding a silver-plated Lincoln and a chauffer-driven Rolls Royce. At the age of 20, she married Kansas City businessman Kenneth Campbell and the couple hosted such local royalty as Joe Louis, Duke Ellington and Count Basie in their mansion. Sarah and Kenneth had three sons, but in 1930 the marriage ended in divorce.
Eventually, Sarah married William Crawford, a restaurateur whom she helped to open a second restaurant in Tulsa. Her fortune took a hit during the Great Depression, but she still owned properties in Kansas City and Oklahoma until her death from a stroke in 1967. Sarah’s experiences encouraged officials in Oklahoma to provide badly needed protection for children caught up in the oil boom, especially Black and indigenous children who became targets of unscrupulous men attempting to snatch their money. Sarah is buried in a peaceful parcel of land known as Blackjack Cemetery back home in Oklahoma where she was born.