When Rector struck oil on land she was allotted by the government, she became the richest Black girl in the country. Unfortunately, few know her story.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on April 27, 2021. It has since been updated.
Sarah Rector was born in 1902 near the all-black town of Taft. Her parents, mother Rose McQueen, and father, Joseph Rector, were descendants of Africans enslaved by the Muscogee Creek Nation Creek Indians before the Civil War. Rector's parents and their descendants were listed as "freedmen," a term used to refer to formerly enslaved individuals who have since been freed from slavery, usually through the course of law. Therefore, the Rectors were entitled to land allotments as part of the Treaty of 1866 made by the United States with the Five Civilized Tribes. Along with Rector herself, almost 600 Black children (also known as Muscogee Freedmen minors) were granted such allotments. The young Black girl was given 159.14 acres (64 hectares) of land, which made her the richest Black girl in all of America.
At the time she was awarded the land, it was considered "inferior infertile soil," which was not suitable for farming. Typically, better land was reserved for White settlers as well as members of the tribe. While the Rector family lived simply, the $30 annual property tax on the young girl's land allotment proved to be a burden on them. So much so, that her father petitioned the Muskogee County Court to sell the land. However, the petition was denied due to restrictions placed on the land. To keep up with the tax payments, Rector's father sold the plot to the Standard Oil Company. Then, in 1913, the independent oil driller B.B. Jones drilled a well on the property. This well led to an oil "gusher": the driller was able to harvest 2,500 barrels of oil a day. From this well alone, Rector was able to earn a daily income of $300.
In the early 1900s, the law stated that full-blooded Indians, Black adults, and children who were citizens of Indian Territory with significant property and money were to be assigned "White guardians." These "guardians" would provide insight into their finances. Of course, as Rector's income grew, there was immense pressure to officially change her guardianship from her parents to a local white resident named T.J. (or J.T.) Porter, an individual known to the family. Subsequently, her allotment became part of the Cushing-Drumright Oil Field.
News of Rector's newfound wealth spread far and wide, including overseas. Despite being only 12 years old, she received requests for loans, money gifts, and marriage proposals. The Oklahoma Legislature, in 1913, even made an effort to have her declared White. This allowed the young girl to reap the benefits of a higher social standing, such as riding in first-class cars and in first-class cabins on trains. Nonetheless, rumors soon began to fly. Local newspapers called her a White immigrant who was being kept in poverty, claimed that her estate was being mismanaged by her family, and even argued that she was uneducated and led a poor quality of life. National African American leaders Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois quickly became concerned about her welfare.
In June 1914, James C. Waters Jr., a special agent for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), sent a memo to Dubois regarding her situation. He wrote of her White financial guardian, "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?" Upon reading this, Dubois was prompted to establish the Children's Department of the NAACP, which would go on to investigate claims of White guardians suspected of depriving Black children of their land and wealth.
Similarly, Washington too intervened to help Rector and her family. In October of the same year, the young girl was enrolled in the Children's School, a boarding school at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, headed by Washington. When she graduated, she attended the Institute. By the time Rector turned 18, she was a millionaire. She owned stocks, bonds, a boarding house, businesses, and a 2,000-acre piece of prime river bottomland. Eventually, she and her family left Tuskegee and moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where they purchased a house on 12th Street. The house, currently under the ownership of a local nonprofit that intends to restore it and preserve its historical and cultural significance, is aptly known as the Rector House.
Rector went on to marry Kenneth Campbell in a small, private wedding. Only her mother and the bridegroom's paternal grandmother were present for the event. Prior to filing for divorce in 1930, the couple had three sons. Ultimately, Rector lived a comfortable life. She had a taste for fine clothing and cars, and threw lavish parties where she entertained celebrities such as Count Basie and Duke Ellington. She passed away in 1967, and her remains were buried in the city cemetery of her hometown of Taft.