The long period in American history between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement carried on the legacy of racism against Black Americans. Even though the slaves had been freed, white Americans were still terrified of the idea of Black people in positions of power. And so, when a pre-teen girl became an overnight millionaire, she was legally declared white.
Most people have never heard the name Sarah Rector. Rector became staggeringly wealthy because oil was discovered on the land she was granted as the descendent of slaves owned by Native Americans. Later, she purchased the Sarah Rector Mansion in Kansas City, Missouri. Millionaire Sarah Rector received marriage proposals in the mail, even though she was still a tween.
The story of the slave child who became a millionaire grabbed headlines around the world. And Rector's mistreatment by her white guardians drove prominent Black leaders like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois to offer her support. But what, exactly, was Sarah Rector's net worth? Well, in 1914, she paid more income taxes in the state of Oklahoma than any other resident — and she was only 12.
Sarah was the descendant of slaves owned by the Creek tribe of Native Americans. After the Civil War, her grandparents were freed and granted tribal rights. Under an 1866 treaty between the United States and five Native American tribes, the freedmen received land allotments of 160 acres each — including the children. Sarah received a parcel valued at $556.50, and her young siblings received separate allotments as well.
But former slaves didn't get the best land, that was reserved for the Creek. In fact, Sarah's parcel was 60 miles from where she lived, and the land was considered unsuitable for farming. Sarah's family nearly lost her rocky, arid parcel because it carried a $30 annual property tax.
Little did they know, the land contained riches in the form of oil.
When oil was discovered on her land, Sarah Rector became a millionaire overnight. The Oklahoma legislature went so far as to declare Sarah Rector a white person. As reported in the Chicago Defender, “the white people have become so alarmed at the enormous wealth of this young girl that they do not like such wealth belonging to a girl of Afro American blood.”
So, the state of Oklahoma declared Sarah white, which allowed her to avoid Jim Crow laws that banned Black people from first-class railroad cars.
As soon as the Standard Oil Company struck oil in 1913, Sarah started receiving a daily income of $300. That's the modern equivalent of around $7,500, every single day. But the government didn't want a child who was descended from slaves to have access to that kind of money.
The law discriminated against Native Americans, Black adults, and children who were citizens of Indian Territory with significant property and money, so they were assigned a "well-respected" white guardian to oversee their assets. But, of course, the system was corrupt, and many of the so-called guardians stole money or property from the people they were supposed to be helping. Luckily, Sarah Rector had some powerful supporters in her corner.
Sarah's story made headlines around the world. As word spread that a young Black girl in Oklahoma owned a fortune in oil, men from all corners of the globe started writing to Sarah Rector, who was not even a teenager yet, and proposing marriage.
Letters poured in requesting loans from the wealthy girl, or simply asking her for money. Four young men in Germany sent marriage proposals to Sarah, even though she was only 12 years old at the time.