The Richest Colored Girl in the World

Article excerpt

Sarah Rector's unusual tale is a singular story of racially motivated greed and corruption by Stacey Patton

Quick . . . who was America's first Black female millionaire?

Most people will say Sarah Breedlove, a.k.a. Madame CJ. Walker. Born to former slaves and raised in a rundown shack in Louisiana, this self-made entrepreneur amassed a fortune peddling hair care and beauty products to African American women during the early 20tn century. Historians have marked 1914 and 1915 as the years when Walker officially became a millionaire. But there was another Sarah who earned the title before Walker. And she did so in 1911 at the ripe age of 10, when she paid the most income tax of any person in the state of Oklahoma that year.

"An Equal Interest in the Soil"

Sarah Rector was born on March 3, 1902 in what was formerly known as Indian Territory before it became the state of Oklahoma in 1907. She lived with her parents, Joseph and Rosa Rector, and five siblings in the all-Black town of Taft, located in the eastern portion of the state. Rector came of age during the state's first major oil boom, which lasted from 1905 until about 1930. A decade prior to statehood, Oklahoma had become the largest oil-producing region in the world with 40 million gallons being pumped each year. Because of her tribal affiliation with the Creek Nation, Rector gained her fortune by the luck of the draw when she received a 160acre plot of land through an allotment process known as the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887.

This federally imposed policy not only destroyed Indian land titles and sovereign governments to prepare Oklahoma for statehood but also created surplus lands that were sold to land-hungry White settlers. Reservation lands formerly held in common by the Five Civilized Tribes (Creek, Choctaw, Seminole, Cherokee and Chickasaw) were broken into individual parcels assigned to Indians and their former Black slaves, known as freedmen. By distributing individual plots of lands, the U.S. government rationalized that the Indians could be "civilized," converted into farmers, educated in the White man's ways, and eventually incorporated into American society as citizens. Eligibility for land also extended to Blacks who had no Indian blood or tribal affiliation but had resided in Indian Territory prior to the end of the Civil War. Two decades before the passage of the Dawes Act, under an 1866 treaty with the U.S. government, the tribes were forced to abolish slavery and incorporate thousands of freedmen with "an equal interest in the soil." 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.

On March 24, 1906, the Department of the Interior assigned 4-year-old Rector seven subdivisions of land in the Glenn Pool region. At the time, the land appraised at $556.50. As was usually the case, surplus lands sold to White settlers were more ideal for farming than the rocky and hilly lands allotted to Indians and freedmen. In fact, Joseph Rector tried to sell his daughter's land by petitioning the Muskogee County Court, but state law forbade the sale of lands belonging to minors. Considered "incompetents," children could not legally enter or execute business contracts. Rector's father continued the burden of paying taxes on the land. But in February 1911, B.B. Jones, a prominent businessman and partner of legendary oilman Tom Slick, discovered a gusher on a section of Rector's land. The family's financial woes seemed as if they would finally disappear. Instead, the young girl became a target of White men who sought control over her estate. When the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and The Crisis intervened in her case, they helped uncover widespread abuse and robbery of Oklahoma's Black juvenile inheritors of land.

Scheming White Men

On June 18, 1914, a 12-page confidential memo arrived for W. …