Born as the daughter of freedmen in 1902, Sarah Rector rose from humble beginnings to reportedly become the wealthiest black girl in the nation at the age of 11.
Rector and her family where African American members of the Muscogee Creek Nation who lived in a modest cabin in the predominantly black town of Taft, Oklahoma, which, at the time, was considered Indian Territory. Following the Civil War, Rector’s parents, who were formerly enslaved by Creek Tribe members, were entitled to land allotments under the Dawes Allotment Act of 1887. As a result, hundreds of black children, or “Creek Freedmen minors,” were each granted 160 acres of land as Indian Territory integrated with Oklahoma Territory to form the State of Oklahoma in 1907. While lands granted to former slaves were usually rocky and infertile, Rector’s allotment from the Creek Indian Nation was located in the middle of the Glenn Pool oil field and was initially valued at $556.50. Strapped for cash, Rector’s father leased his daughter’s parcel to a major oil company in February 1911 to help him pay the $30 annual property tax. Two years later, Rector’s fortune took a major turn when independent oil driller B.B. Jones produced a “gusher” on her land that brought in 2,500 barrels or 105,000 gallons per day. According to Tonya Bolden, author of Searching for Sarah Rector: The Richest Black Girl in America (Harry N. Abrams; $21.95), Rector began earning more than $300 a day in 1913. That equates to $7,000 – $8,000 today. She even generated $11,567 in October 1913.
Rector’s notoriety ballooned just as quickly as her wealth. In September 1913, The Kansas City Star local newspaper published the headline, “Millions to a Negro Girl – Sarah Rector, 10-Year Old, Has Income of $300 A Day From Oil,” reports Face 2 Face Africa. In January 1914, the newspaper wrote, “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.” Meanwhile, the Savannah Tribune wrote, “Oil Well Produces Neat Income – Negro Girl’s $112,000 A Year”. Another newspaper dubbed her “the richest negro in the world.” Her fame became widespread and she received numerous requests for loans, money gifts, and four marriage proposals.
At the time, a law required Native Americans, black adults, and children who were citizens of Indian Territory with significant property and money were to be assigned “well-respected” white guardians. As a result, Rector’s guardianship switched from her parents to a white man named T.J. Porter. Concerned with her wellbeing and her white financial guardian, early NAACP leaders fought to protect her and her fortune. According to a report from BlackPast.org:
In 1914 The Chicago Defender published an article claiming that her estate was being mismanaged by grafters and her “ignorant” parents, and that she was uneducated, dressed in rags, and lived in an unsanitary shanty. National African American leaders such as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois became concerned about her welfare. None of the allegations were true. Rector and her siblings went to school in Taft, an all-black town closer than Twine, they lived in a modern five-room cottage, and they owned an automobile. That same year, Rector enrolled in the Children’s House, a boarding school for teenagers at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
By the time she turned 18, Rector was worth an estimated $1 million, or about $11 million today. She also owned stocks and bonds, a boarding house, a bakery and restaurant in Muskogee, Oklahoma, and 2,000 acres of land. She eventually left Tuskegee with her family and moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where she bought a grand home that still stands today. “There, the Rectors eventually moved into a home that was a far cry from that weather-whipped two-room cabin in which Sarah began life. This home-place was a stately stone house. It became known as the Rector Mansion,” Bolden told the New York Amsterdam News.
In 1922, she married Kenneth Campbell, the second African American to own an auto dealership. The couple had three sons and were recognized as local royalty, driving expensive cars and entertaining elites like Joe Louis, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie at their home. They divorced in 1930 and Rector remarried in 1934.
Rector’s lost most of her wealth during The Great Depression. When she died at age 65 on July 22, 1967, she only had some working oil wells and real estate holdings.
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on February 11, 2019