Although historical accounts clash, Sarah Rector is believed to be America’s second black millionaire after Madam C.J. Walker, achieving that distinction as a teenager.
Born on March 3, 1902 in the small town of Twine, Okla., Rector’s family were descendants of slaves and Creek Indians. While living on Creek Indian land, Rector’s parents Joseph and Rose were given hundreds of acres thought to be useless in 1907. Under the Dawes Allotment Act, Creek lands were divided among the Creeks and former slaves. Lands given to former slaves were typically not fit for farming.
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Rector’s father leased Sarah’s portion of the land to a Pittsburgh oil company in 1911, primarily to pay a yearly $30 tax bill. In 1913, an oil driller discovered a “gusher” that produced a reported 2,500 barrels per day. Rector’s cut was $300 each day, a considerable amount at the time. By the time she was 11, her portion of the family’s land was earning more than 300,000 a year, drawing both suitors and global attention despite her age.
When the public learned how much Rector was earning, her guardianship was transferred from her parents to a white man named T.J. Porter. Black newspapers at the time, like the Chicago Defender in 1914, were angered by this takeover. The paper allegedly embellished details about the Rectors, saying that they lived in a shack, which generated concern from Black leaders like W.E.B. DuBois.
The Rector family actually lived far better than advertised. The Rector children attended school in Taft, an all-Black town. They lived in a five-room cottage and even owned a car, a rarity for Blacks at the time.
In October 1914, Rector enrolled at the Children’s House, a boarding school for teens at Tuskegee Institute. When she turned 18 on March 3, 1920, Rector left Tuskegee and her family relocated to Kansas City, Missouri. By then, Rector owned stocks and bonds, a boarding house, a bakery and the Busy Bee Café in Muskogee, Okla.
Along with her businesses, she owned 2,000 acres of river bottomland and was worth over $1 million. The family lived in what was called the Rector Mansion in Kansas City, but wrangling over Rector’s earnings and financial mismanagement continued until she was 20. According to the Amsterdam News, Rector and her family sought to end Porter’s guardianship and were ultimately successful.
By 1922, Sarah was able to make her own decisions, and she married her first husband that year. She and Kenneth Campbell had three sons, Kenneth Jr., Leonard, and Clarence. Rector’s spending was legendary, and she routinely drove around town in one of her expensive vehicles. She divorced Campbell and married restaurant owner William Crawford, who she remained with until she died.
Rector died at the age of 65 on July 22, 1967. While her fortune had diminished over time, at her death, she still held considerable investments.
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