Sarah Rector was born in 1902 in what is today Taft, Okla. Back then it was known as Twine, Indian Territory, as the Oklahoma had not yet been incorporated as a state. The town belonged to the Creek Indians. Sarah’s great-great grandmother Mollie McQueen was a black slave who belonged to Creek Chief Opothleyahola in Alabama. When his people were forced west of the Mississippi by the U.S. government, the chief took his slaves with him.
When the Indian territory where Rector was born became Oklahoma in 1907, the federal government granted each member of the Creek Nation a land allotment, including four-year-old Sarah Rector.
Like most other dealings the government had with the natives, it was not entirely honest. The plots given to Indians and freemen were usually rocky and unsuitable for farming, while the more arable lands were sold to white settlers. Sarah’s parents Joseph and Rose were also forced to pay a land tax on their daughter’s property. This was a burden that became so great that Joseph attempted to sell Sarah’s land, but was blocked from doing so by state law (which forbade the sale of lands belonging to minors). Ironically, this government prohibition proved to be the family’s greatest blessing.
Sarah Rector Strikes It Rich
Since he could not sell the land, Joseph Rector decided to lease it out to Standard Oil Company. At the turn of the 20th century, the Indian Territory was the country’s biggest oil producer. After Oklahoma statehood in 1907, the new state continued to draw drillers to the area hoping to get lucky. In early 1911, an independent driller struck liquid gold on the Rectors’ land, bringing the family royalties of $300 per day. That’s equivalent to nearly $8,000 today. Some estimates place her net worth at the time at $1 million, or about $26 million today. One newspaper at the time dubbed her “the richest negro in the world.”
Under the laws of the time, black parents were not automatically given guardianship of their own children. They had to petition a court to obtain it, or otherwise request a white guardian. Sarah’s parents had selected a white guardian for her – Thomas Jefferson Porter – who “had been the family’s benefactor for years and long before there was any probability of them every having money.” Although Joseph Rector had selected Porter as Sarah’s guardian before oil was discovered on her land, newspapers soon picked up the story that the Rector family was still living in relative poverty while Sarah’s white guardian was making a killing off her oil.
In response to queries from W.E.B. Du Bois himself, the county judge who oversaw the Rectors’ expenses wrote back confirming that Porter received less than two percent of Sarah’s total income, that the Rectors lived in a new, fully-furnished five-room cottage, and that Sarah and her sister were set to attend a boarding school run by Booker T. Washington. Sarah Rector was fortunate in that her guardian did not take advantage of her wealth and that the local law protected her (many other black children wound up being scammed out of their wealth or far worse). The Muskogee Cimeter, a black Oklahoma newspaper delightedly declared, “It takes an awful big man to give the Negro a square deal and Muskogee’s judge is such a man.”
With all the hype surrounding her luck, eventually Rector attracted the attention of another type of man: one who did not see black or white so much as green. The 12-year-old was soon receiving marriage proposals from suitors as far away as Germany. Sarah wound up marrying a former college football player she met in Kansas City. The couple reveled in their position as “local royalty,” driving fancy cars and hosting Joe Louis, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie in their mansion.
Of course, people never stopped trying to take advantage of Rector’s fortune. When a change to Oklahoma law raised the legal age from 18 to 21, a local white man attempted to make himself the young millionaire’s legal guardian. The courts again sided with Rector, ruling that since she had managed her property “with such astuteness” that she “needs no guardian.”
Sarah Rector was not immune from the Great Depression, however, which cost her most of her fortune. She died in 1967 at age 65 and was buried in Taft, Okla.
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