Sarah Rector, have you heard of her? If not, you’re not alone: most people haven’t either. Nonetheless, at 12, she became an overnight billionaire in 1914.
Fearing that a small black child would become one of the country’s wealthiest people, the government legally declared her white. This is her story.
Slaves in the United States were freed following the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. While blacks could no longer be forced to work for free, racism and discrimination kept them from doing and having things that white people did.
They were scared of black individuals wielding power or influence. Sarah Rector was the descendant of slaves owned by an Oklahoma tribe of Native Americans.
Her grandparents were the ones who were liberated from slavery and so granted tribal rights. The freedmen received land allotments of 160 acres apiece through an 1866 treaty between the United States and five Native American tribes. Sarah was given her plot of property because she had children.
Her plot was worth $556.50. Slaves, on the other hand, were not usually awarded “excellent” pieces of land, such as those near the creek. The one offered to Sarah was deemed unfit for farming and was located 60 miles away from her home. Sarah almost lost the land due to this and a $30 annual land tax. That is until oil was discovered on her property. So much so that, at 12, she became an instant billionaire.
The little girl began receiving marriage proposals in the mail and naturally was receiving a lot of attention from the press. Oklahoma was anxious about a black guy amassing so much riches.
They legally proclaimed her white since they didn’t know what else to do. This was partly to allow her to enjoy first-class trains and other amenities that, at the time, were solely available to white people.
Sarah Rector’s daily salary was $300. That is the equivalent of $7500 every day today. Regrettably, due to widespread racism, black persons with money were given a white person to “supervise” their holdings. Because of the assumption that black people should not have such wealth, these guardians frequently stole money and property from the individuals they were supposed to be helping.
The black community rallied around Sarah, knowing that white people would quickly take advantage of such a young kid. The Chicago Defender, the country’s most influential black newspaper, released a story detailing how Sarah’s white “guardian” was mismanaging her estate.
Sarah wore slum clothes and tatters despite her wealthy wealth. BOTH NATIONAL BLACK LEADERS, Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B. DuBois, saw the piece and called Sarah’s family. They enlisted the help of the NAACP, an organization dedicated to defending the rights of black children.
To change these situations, the NAACP collaborated with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the United States Children’s Bureau. The NAACP questioned why Sarah couldn’t be cared for by someone of her race who would treat her well rather than someone who would take advantage of her.
Sarah was also provided educational assistance by Booker T. Washington. He relocated her to Alabama and enrolled her in a teen boarding school. She later attended Tuskegee Institute and Tuskegee University. She subsequently relocated to Kansas City with her family, already a billionaire.
Sarah had a cafe, a boarding house, a bakery, and stocks and bonds at 18. She owned 2,000 acres of land and purchased Rector Mansion on 12th Street. Sarah married at the age of 20 and had three sons. She was not scared to spend her money and had a lavish lifestyle.
Though she spent most of her money on herself and her family, refusing to hide it for white people’s comfort, she utilized some of her money to help those in need.
For example, she bought a stretch limousine to transport all of the neighborhood’s black children to school. The Rector Mansion in Kansas City still stands as a tribute to America’s first-ever wealthy black family.