Sarah Rector

University of Kansas
  • Date of birth: March 3, 1902
  • Place of birth: Muskogee, Oklahoma
  • Home(s): 2000 E. 12th St. (“Rector Mansion”); 2440 Brooklyn Ave.; 2418 Campbell St.
  • Claim to fame: known as “Kansas City’s First Black Woman Millionaire”
  • Also known as: Sarah Rector Campbell, Sarah Campbell, Sarah Campbell Crawford, Sarah Crawford
  • Spouse: Kenneth Campbell (divorced approx. 1935); William Crawford
  • Date of death: July 22, 1967
  • Place of death: General Hospital
  • Cause of death: Stroke
  • Final resting place: Black Jack Cemetery in Taft, Oklahoma

Sarah Rector, Kansas City’s “First Black Millionairess,” was known in Kansas City for her “fairy tale” ascension to money and fame, fine living at Rector Mansion, and reported entertaining of African American celebrities such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Joe Louis, and Jack Johnson. Rector’s story, however, is a complex narrative that stands at the intersections of race, indigenous sovereignty, children’s rights, and the oil boom in Oklahoma; it requires wading through questionable news reports and legal statutes while examining the shifting status of freedmen during the early part of the 20th century.

The Rector family’s ancestors had been enslaved by Creek tribal members, and after the Civil War, the U.S. government declared freedmen, such as the Rectors, citizens of the respective tribes in which they had been enslaved. Sarah Rector was thus both black and an enrolled member of the Creek tribe.

Complicated legal statutes combined with highly improbable chance and luck to produce Sarah Rector’s wealth. The 1887 Dawes General Allotment Act, also known as the Dawes Severalty Act, stripped Native people of their land rights as the U.S. government attempted to restrict indigenous lands and transfer property to white settlers. Simultaneously, the Dawes Act sought to impose a system of individual property rights upon tribes, as U.S. government officials identified previous tribal, communal property as “uncivilized.” Government officials surveyed tribal land, divided it into allotments, and ultimately dispersed much of it to white settlers through the sale of what they deemed as “excess” tribal land. Only those individuals who accepted an allotment, or plot, were entitled to U.S. citizenship. The Dawes Act, however, did not initially apply to the so-called “Five Civilized Tribes” (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole), who were exempt through previous treaties.

At the turn of the century, however, Oklahoma was transitioning from “Indian Territory” to state status, and the U.S. government sought further land for white settlers. The Curtis Act of 1898 amended the Dawes Act to include tribes residing in Oklahoma, breaking up tribal governments and their communal lands in Indian Territory. In 1889, the Unassigned Lands in central Oklahoma resulted in descendants of Creek slaves being allotted “an equal share with their former owners on the government allotment of the Old Creek lands in Indian territory.” Following the end of the Civil War, these freedmen had been declared citizens of the respective tribes in which they had been enslaved. As such, their descendants were each entitled to a plot of land equal in size to the allotted plots of non-enslaved enrolled tribal members.

U.S. government involvement resulted in individual Native freedmen, including Rector and her siblings, each receiving the regulatory allotment of 160 acres. Contributor to Crisis, Stacey Patton, writes, “Since the actual distribution of lands lasted from 1898 until 1906, Rector and the other 4,407 Black children living in the Creek Nation together received nearly one million acres of land in eastern Oklahoma.” The Curtis Act opened up “surplus” lands to white settlers for purchase; approximately 90 million acres were stripped from tribes and made available to whites. The federal government, unsurprisingly, pushed what was thought to be the least valuable land upon tribal members; this land was rocky and largely unsuitable for crops. If the government had realized the amount of oil that rested underneath many of those “undesirable” allotments, including Sarah Rector’s, her narrative would have looked very different.

As early as 1913, when Sarah Rector was 11 years old, her name was splashed across national headlines, both white and black presses. The Kansas City, Kansas, black press National Review reported on September 25 of that year that Rector’s income “exceed[ed] the president’s” but the “only outside sign of Oklahoma colored girl’s vast oil royalties” was “a neatly embossed bank book, its leaves of gilt-edged paper, bearing the name ‘Sarah Rector.’” Reports began circulating that Rector was living in a quaint, small cabin “contentedly” and that “every safeguard [was] being used to protect the girl’s interests.” She quickly became known as the “richest colored girl in America.”

W. E. B. Du Bois
Sarah Rector's legal case ultimately involved W.E.B. Du Bois, the NAACP, and its magazine, the Crisis. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Rector’s living conditions and safety soon became a larger, more pressing question, one that commanded W.E.B. Du Bois’s attention, as well as that of the rest of the nation. By 1915, newspapers reported Rector’s income quickly increasing past $10,000 a month, in a time when average household incomes were under $60 a month. Rector was 13 years old and legally could not manage her own estate. Her guardian, a white man appointed by a probate judge and named T.J. Porter, controlled all of Sarah’s financial affairs, although both her parents were alive. In one way, at least, the guardianship arrangement worked to Sarah’s advantage. Before oil had been found on her allotment, her father had struggled to pay the property taxes and even petitioned to sell it, but legally he could not, as Sarah remained a minor.

Rector’s property was operated by B.B. Jones, a “millionaire oil man,” and the Sun reported fall 1915 production at approximately 160,000 barrels of crude oil a month. Rector’s share was one-eighth, or 20,000 barrels a month, at 90 cents a barrel. Reportedly this totaled to $18,000 a month, or a daily income from oil royalties of around $600. That amount of money was almost unfathomable for the time, with her daily income some Americans’ annual salaries.

The amount of money involved attracted widespread attention, particularly because of Rector’s racial identity, and it sparked questions about Rector’s guardianship and living conditions. W.E.B. Du Bois, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and its magazine, the Crisis, became involved in Sarah Rector’s case when Du Bois received a memo from James C. Waters, Jr., an attorney and agent affiliated with the NAACP, on June 18, 1914. The memo contained details pertaining to a several weeks’ long investigation into the alleged mismanagement of Rector’s estate by a white man. Although Rector’s estate was pulling in a huge sum of money, Rector and her family were reported to be living in a two-room shack. Waters asked, “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?" Sarah Rector allegedly wore no shoes, wore cheap dresses, and was receiving no education, while the guardian appointed to her by the Creek Muskogee Nation was noted by the Chicago Defender as “a real southerner . . . who gets a fabulous sum of money a year . . . lives on the fat of the land with her money and does not give his colored charge the care he would a White girl.” Du Bois and the Crisis, as well as black presses across the nation, challenged the status of a white male guardian.

The New York Age reported “wholesale protests” in response to news of Rector’s guardianship and asserted that there were similar cases in Oklahoma oil country, numbering “native Negro children” with allotments in the hundreds, “whose wealth reaches far into the thousands, and in every case they, like Sarah Rector, have white guardians.” The paper questioned why a black guardian could not be appointed who would be fully invested in the girl’s welfare and claimed, “When ‘a native child’ allotment is of little or no value the parents or some other Negro may be appointed as guardian, but if there is any wealth involved a white guardian is invariably appointed. Regardless of wealth, ability and high standing, the Probate Judge never deems a Negro sufficiently competent to act as a guardian for a wealthy Negro child.” The courts, according to the presses, were also biased and involved in grafting schemes.

Other African American presses echoed such sentiments, expanding the issue from that of individual black children’s fortunes to a more widespread one of racial solidarity. The New York Age, for instance, wrote, “The money of these colored children is deposited in white banks and used by whites. Not a penny, however, can be used by a Negro. Thus, millions of dollars and valuable land are gradually passing from the hands of Negroes to white people.” Another press called white guardianship “abominable and outrageous,” and wrote, “If the colored people were allowed to control these millions of dollars of wealth, which is owned by their own race, we could build banks, railroads, factories, warehouses and establish a suitable commercial standing as a race.” The concern, of course, stemmed from white guardians charging exorbitant sums of money for their services or sometimes arranging deals profitable for themselves and their white acquaintances, while effectively bleeding their charges’ funds dry. Sarah Rector’s alleged abuse made her a figurehead for this race problem.

While reports of nefarious dealings by guardians were sometimes conflicting, the Crisis listed multiple black millionaires in Oklahoma whose estates were being appropriated and mismanaged by “grafter guardians,” including Edith Durant, Sallie Hodge Lee, W.C. Flanigan, and Luther Manuel. Edith and Edna Durant were twins enrolled in the Creek tribe, living in Glen Pool, Oklahoma. In 1911 their guardian, a man with the last name of Burnett, failed to account for missing funds to the court and finally paid out $40,000 to the twins. The dangers for young landowners were still worse. Cases of attempted or actual murder usually included a killer or accomplice who would forge deeds, then claim the dead landowner’s property. This wasn’t limited to child landowners, but within Taft (Rector’s hometown), two Creek freedmen and siblings named Stella (aged 10) and Herbert (12) Sells were murdered when a white man, William Irvin, and his accomplice, an African American blacksmith by the name of D.R. Allen, reportedly placed dynamite under the children’s bedroom and blasted their house.

Some details regarding Sarah Rector’s own history with guardianship are conflicting and murky. Rector did receive a substantial number of international marriage proposals from the age of 13, many of them from white men seeking control of her oil empire. The Crisis claimed that Rector was also being abused, ranging from her living conditions to her business transactions. The publication claimed Bob Fite, an “open racist,” sold a building in Muskogee to Rector through T.J. Porter, his friend and her guardian, for an exorbitant sum of $57,000. During correspondence between Du Bois and Muskogee Judge Leahy, however, the judge told Du Bois that Rector had now moved into a five-room cottage, and that the child, along with her siblings, was attending school in Taft. White papers claimed Judge Leahy was tough on guardians who held discrepancies in their accounting. According to Leahy, Sarah’s parents had selected Porter for guardian, and Porter received 2 percent of Sarah’s income, a relatively low figure.

It is clear, however, that after the NAACP’s investigation, the need for a children’s division gained widespread attention, and other instances of child neglect gained further press. After Booker T. Washington became involved, Rector also began attending Tuskegee Institute’s Children’s School. Presses reported that while a student at Tuskegee, a guard of students prevented Rector’s “abduction by a party of schemers who had followed her” there and were attempting to extort a sizeable ransom. While the exact abuses and attempted abuses that faced Rector are unclear, her property rights and wealth certainly made her, and other child landowners like her, targets for exploitation and violence.

Sarah Rector and her family relocated to Kansas City, where she attended Lincoln High School and graduated sometime in the early 1920s. Rector’s issues with guardianship and men’s greed followed her from Oklahoma to Kansas City. In November 1921, Fred Rector, Sarah’s uncle, alleged that Rector was “dissipating her fortune” and asked that G.C. Parker, a white man of Muskogee, be appointed as guardian. In March 1922, another application was filed against her that sought a guardian to oversee her estate. While Rector was 20 at the time, John Collins, a black resident of Muskogee, attempted to wrest control of the estate through a recent change in Missouri law, which changed the age of majority for women from 18 to 21 years old. Collins also claimed Rector was incompetent, spent her money frivolously, and would lose her fortune without guardianship, naming Monte Sampson as an appropriate guardian. The allegations both seemed to stem from pure grafters’ greed, rather than legitimate concern for Rector herself. The courts refused the applications, holding that the law could not be retroactive; under the old law, Rector was of legal age and thereby entitled to her own estate without interference. Rector was also found to be mentally sound and capable of handling her own finances, having impressive lawyers on retainer. At that point, she owned more than $750,000 in oil properties, and some papers estimated her wealth in Kansas and Missouri at over one million.

The Rector Mansion
Tax Assessment photograph of Rector Mansion at 12th Street and Euclid. Courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

During her adult life in Kansas City, Rector does not appear to have been especially interested in philanthropic causes. At the least, she is not widely listed in political or organizational events or affiliations. At the height of her wealth, Rector owned richly furnished “Rector Mansion,” a stone edifice at 2000 East 12th St., and reportedly the entire block of 12th and Euclid surrounding it. Eventually, she sold Rector Mansion to the Adkins Funeral home, and still later, Rector Mansion became the C.K. Kerford Funeral home. According to her son, Clarence Campbell, Rector “had rich tastes” and drove a green and black Cadillac and threw grand parties for the black elite and jazz celebrities. She was known by locals for her expensive vehicles (which, in addition to the Cadillac, included a silver-plated Lincoln and a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce), extravagant clothing, and diamonds.

Despite her lavish living, Sarah Rector appears to have been a quiet, private person within the Kansas City community. While her name graced many headlines during her adolescence, details about her later personal life are more difficult to find. At age 20, Rector married Kenneth Campbell, a Kansas City businessman. Campbell, among other endeavors, owned a car dealership within 18th and Vine, and Rector apparently invested in his ventures. After her eventual divorce from Campbell, Rector became involved with and married William Crawford, who owned a restaurant at 1521 East 18th St. Rector and Crawford later expanded to another restaurant in Tulsa.

Rector’s investments and wealth continued to accrue through the 1920s, and while much of her fortune took a hard hit during and following the Great Depression, Rector continued to own some properties in Kansas City and Oklahoma until her death in 1967. Her story remains complex and little researched, and while it is unclear exactly how much is rumor or fact, the history surrounding her life pushed officials and activists to examine the lives of freedmen in Oklahoma more closely and to provide protections for children, particularly black and indigenous children, that previously did not exist. Not every child came out of Oklahoma’s oil boom unscathed. Perhaps because of Du Bois and the NAACP’s intervention, or perhaps because her guardian was comparatively honest, Rector thrived during decades in which her status as a wealthy black child, and later black woman, made her a target for many men’s greed. When her life had been so heavily scrutinized and publicized as an adolescent, it is not so surprising, then, that she might choose to maintain a secured private life in later years.

This essay was developed as part of an Applied Humanities Summer Fellowship, cosponsored by the Hall Center for the Humanities at the University of Kansas.

Additional support from the Missouri Humanities Council.