"Sarah Rector," by Stacey Patton, “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.” This headline, which appeared in The Kansas City Star on January 15, 1914, was just the first of many newspaper and magazine headlines during the next decade about Sarah Rector, the richest black child known to the world in that era.
“Oil Well Produces Neat Income – Negro Girl’s $112,000 A Year.”
In September, 1913, The Kansas City Star reported: “Millions to a Negro Girl - Sarah Rector, 10-Year Old, Has Income of $300 A Day From Oil,” and The Savannah Tribune ran: “Oil Well Produces Neat Income – Negro Girl’s $112,000 A Year.”
Sarah Rector “bewildered little ten year-old girl”
In 1914 and 1915, the Salt Lake Telegram, The Oregonian and American Magazine profiled the “bewildered little ten year-old girl” and told of how she inherited her “big income” but still wore tattered dresses and slept each night in a big armchair beside her six siblings in a two-room prairie house in Muskogee, Oklahoma. By the early 1920s, many newspapers covered the court battles involving white men seeking to become Rector’s guardian to gain control over her estate.
She was one of a group of Creek freedman children who were given land allotments by the U.S. government as part of the Treaty of 1866.
Sarah Rector was born in 1902, near Taft in Indian Territory, the northeastern part of present-day Oklahoma. Though she was “colored,” she was not an African-American child and had no concept of what it meant to be an American citizen. Rector was a descendant of slaves who had been owned by Creek Indians before the Civil War.
Former Creek Slave
In 1866, the Creek Nation signed a treaty with the United States government promising to emancipate their 16,000 slaves and incorporate them into their nation as citizens entitled to “equal interest in the soil and national funds.” Two decades later, the federally imposed Dawes Allotment Act of 1887 sparked the beginning of the “total assimilation” of the Indians of the so-called Five Civilized Tribes by forcing them to live on individually-owned lots of land instead of communally as they had done for centuries.
There was a great deal of resistance to this plan by the Creeks and other tribes, who viewed it as yet another tactic by the U.S. government to destroy the tribe’s political sovereignty and way of life. But as a result of the Dawes Allotment Act, nearly 600 black children, or Creek Freedmen minors as they were called, inherited 160 acres of land, unlike their African-American counterparts who were granted citizenship after slavery but never got that promised “forty acres and a mule.”
To the surprise of U.S. government officials, a few old and young allottees like Sarah Rector found that their land came with crude oil and other minerals underneath the soil.
When she was born, Rector was given a rough, hilly allotment, considered worthless agriculturally, in Glenpool, 60 miles from where she and her family lived. Her father had petitioned the Muskogee County Court to sell the land, but he was denied because of certain restrictions placed on the land, for which he was required to continue paying taxes.
In 1913, when she was ten years old, large pools of oil were discovered on Rector’s land. One year later, her land produced so much oil that she had already yielded $300,000; her fortune was increasing at a rate of $10,000 per month. Her mother had died years earlier from tuberculosis. In 1914, her father died in prison, leaving her orphaned.
Even before her father’s death, Rector was appointed a guardian who was responsible for managing Rector’s money and providing for her education and care. The law at the time required full-blooded Indians, black adults and children who were citizens of Indian Territory with significant property and money, to be assigned “well-respected” white guardians who often cheated them out of their lands. There are stories of swindlers, oil tycoons and other unscrupulous types who kidnapped and murdered the children and adults to get their land.
Creek Indian Girls
Unlike other hapless waifs who fell victim to fraud, losing their land and wealth while growing up in a western frontier fraught with violence, fraud and racism, Rector was one of a few black children able to ward off greedy guardians and retain her wealth as an adult.
Rector graduated high school, attended Tuskegee University, and then moved to Kansas City at age 19. She purchased a mansion on Twelfth Street, entertaining Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Joe Louis and Jack Johnson at lavish parties. Not much is known of her later life other than stories of how she splurged on jewelry, fine clothes, and cars.
Tullekessee Manual Labor School, April 1891
Much of Rector’s adult life is still needs to be developed, as is the case for the study of the history of black childhood in America. Rector is significant because hers is a vital yet untold story about the complexities or race, childhood, and citizenship on the American frontier in the early 20th century. (source: http://kelvinrector.com/sarahrector.html)