Her story began long before she was born:
In the 1830s the US forced the Five Civilized Tribes – the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Seminoles and Creeks – out of their homelands in the South and moved them to the wastelands west of the Mississippi, to what is now known as Oklahoma. It was called the Trail of Tears. Her great grandparents were part of it: they were slaves of the Creeks.
In 1866, the US forced the Creek nation to free its slaves and make them citizens. The slaves became what is known as the Creek freedmen.
In 1887, the US forced the Creek nation to divide its land among its citizens. Till then, Creeks had held their land in common. Anyone born before 1904 got some land. Sarah Rector just made it under the deadline – and got one of the worst pieces: 160 acres (65 hectares) of rocks.
But then on August 29th 1913, oil was discovered! Huge amounts of it. By 1918 her land had 49 working oil wells!
In 1914 the Washington Post reported: “Oil Made Pickanniny Rich”. It said Rector was “ignorant with apparently little mental capacity.”
Letters poured in from charlatans, charities and would-be suitors.
Rumours flew that she got little of the money, that she was living in a shack – or worse: that she had disappeared!
The NAACP and Chicago Defender, a Black newspaper, feared for her. Rightly so: she had a court-approved White guardian. Not all guardians had the best interests of their oil-rich Black or Native charges at heart. Some children did wind up with nothing. Some even wound up dead! W.E.B. Du Bois of the NAACP looked into Rector’s case.
As far as we can tell, her guardian was an honest man who acted in her best interests. So did the county judge. The only bad apple was her guardian’s lawyer, who took $8,500 in kickbacks on land deals made with her money. He was later found out and disbarred from practising law.
About the time she turned 18, some tried to have her declared incompetent so they could control of her fortune. She fought them off in court.
During the 1920s, she and her family lived in the Rector Mansion in Kansas City. She enjoyed her fortune during the height of the Jazz Age, but also bought property. She married a Black businessman, the owner of a car dealership, and had three sons.
We do not if she had any money in the stock market, but right after the Crash of 1929 her husband left her. She went from rich to merely well-off.
In the 1930s the oil wells started to run dry. She sold her oil land and married a restaurant owner, who she lived with for the rest of her days. She lived a private life, never giving interviews.
In 1967 she was laid to rest not far from where she had grown up in a two-room house.
Thanks to Linda for suggesting this post – and for her patience!
– Abagond, 2016.
Source: “Searching for Sarah Rector” (2014) by Tonya Bolden.