MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Local News

July 12, 2014

Daughter of freedmen needed years to gain her oil wealth

Sarah Rector was born to a freedmen family in Taft in March 1902. Her parents were Joseph and Rosa Rector, who had several other children. According to the allotment treaty negotiated by the Creeks with the Dawes Commission, the Rectors all received allotments of land scattered around the Creek Nation in Indian Territory.

Sarah was 4 when she received her allotment in 1906. It was scrubby land not suitable for farming, often what the children of freedmen and full-blood Indians were allotted. It appraised for just over $500 at the time little Sarah received her deed.

Joseph Rector tried to sell Sarah’s property, seeing no use for land located far from their home in Taft. But restrictions had been placed on the sale of allotments by the government. It was the government’s effort to keep allottees from being swindled by unscrupulous land speculators. This effort, however, did not keep allottees from being taken advantage of.

In 1911, Sarah’s “worthless” parcel of land suddenly drew a great deal of attention. It was located within the Glenn Pool oil field, and soon wildcatters were seeking oil leases to permit drilling on Sarah’s allotment.

B.B. Jones, a partner with oilman Tom Slick, brought in a gusher in February 1911. The well quickly began producing $50,000 worth of oil per month. In 1911, Sarah’s estate paid the most income tax of any Oklahoman. On paper, Sarah was a millionaire at age 10. She and her family should have been living in the lap of luxury — but they weren’t.

Whether misguided or manipulative, or both, the government had set in place a system of guardianships for minor allottees. This system was supposed to protect children from being swindled out of their property. However, many guardians became the swindlers, deriving income from allotment lands for themselves instead of their wards.

Sarah Rector’s new fortune made her guardian rich, but for many years she and her family saw little of the tremendous oil income. They continued to live in a small shack in Taft. But as her story became known, individuals and organizations stepped in to try to defend Sarah and other such children from the system that was supposed to protect them. In time, the Rector family’s situation improved with better housing and living conditions.

Booker T. Washington learned about Sarah and offered her an education at Tuskegee Institute. Sarah attended the famous school in 1914 and 1915. From Tuskegee, Sarah moved to Kansas City and finished high school there. By this time, she was 18 and in charge of her own affairs. Worth more than $1 million, Sarah was for a time, the richest African-American woman in the nation.

She married at age 20 and spent her money freely, but carefully, on her home and family in Kansas City. When Missouri changed its majority age to 21 instead of 18, new individuals in Oklahoma tried to get themselves appointed as her guardian. But the Muskogee County Court ruled that Sarah had ably demonstrated that she was capable of managing her finances and did not need a guardian.

Sarah, her husband, Kenneth Campbell, who was a Kansas City businessman, and their two children lived quietly on Sarah’s estate following the court’s ruling. Champions of Sarah’s cause celebrated the success of the “richest colored girl in the world,” as she had come to be known. Their hope was that her success would prompt changes in the guardianship system and provide a better life for other children in similar situations as hers.

Reach Jonita Mullins at jonita.mullins@gmail.com.

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