The Unlikely Baroness

by Steve Gerkin

03/24/2015

The young black girl poses in a common, patterned dress by an ordinary side chair. Her shadow creates a ghostly presence on the light-colored wall behind her. The pigtails of the 10-year-old Sarah Rector sprout opposite her ears, like antennas on a Flash Gordon space helmet.

Historical records conflict over the issue of the first black female millionaire, though Sarah was the first black adolescent to achieve millionaire status, hands down. Her road to riches involved mandated endowment, racial triumph, and good fortune.

Long before the births of Sarah and her three siblings, the Creek Nation agreed with the federal government to emancipate their 16,000 slaves, giving them citizenship in their nation and entitling them to equal interest in soil and national funds. They became known as Freedmen.

The efforts to totally assimilate the Five Tribes of Oklahoma Territory into white America continued with the passage of the Dawes Allotment Act of 1887. This legislation forced the tribes to disband their centuries-old communal lifestyle and assigned roll members individually owned lots of land.

The Creek Nation was sliced up into 160-acre squares, “more or less,” and doled out to the Natives and former slaves; each received 120 acres for agriculture and 40 acres for homesteading. In an attempt to maintain a semblance of community, the Freedmen collectively chose allotments in an area known as Black Jack, 10 miles west of the county seat of Muskogee (eastern present-day Oklahoma), and formed the settlement Twine, honoring the newspaperman and resident William Henry Twine, who was nicknamed “Black Tiger” for his print-battle to ensure racial justice.

Born March 3, 1904, into a former Creek slave family of Joseph and Rosa Rector of Twine, Sarah and her clan moved down the dirt road to the newly created town of Taft, one of two-dozen black towns in the Indian Territory. Joseph farmed corn and cotton on Rosa’s acres, while the kids watched the trains come and go from the Midland Valley Railroad station. Sarah lived poorly in the pre-statehood territory. Yet, she had her allotment.

The landmark Dawes decision provided nearly 600 black children, or Creek Freedmen minors, with an inheritance of land, which was, generally, not fit for farming. The bulk of Sarah’s allotment was on rocky banks either side of a horseshoe bend in the Cimarron River, in another county near Tulsa, 50 miles from her home.

Since taxes were due on the allotted lands, Joseph Rector sold his acres to avoid debt and generate revenue for basic living. Black parents were not automatically considered the guardians of their children. They were required to petition the county court for permission to manage their children’s affairs. Joseph was granted legal guardianship on Christmas Eve 1909. He promptly sold the land of his oldest child, Rebecca, for $1,700.

Sarah’s land had a value of $556.50, but the annual tax burden of $30 created a financial dilemma. Postponing the crisis, her father leased Sarah’s Cimarron land to Devonian Oil Company for $160, or $1 per acre. They did not renew, and Joseph asked the court for permission to sell. Good fortune stepped into Sarah’s life in the form of a lease by people working for Tom Slick, the man who would become the “King of Wildcatters.” Prior to his deal for Sarah’s mineral rights, Slick struck oil just five miles south of her land. He cut telephone lines to stymie word getting out before he could snatch up all the nearby leases. Sarah’s lease changed hands in 1918 with the receipt of a $300,000 signing bonus. Her property became the domain of Prairie Oil and Gas, a subsidiary of Standard Oil (John D. Rockefeller), originally recruited to capitalize oil ventures in Kansas by Harry Sinclair, a Tulsa resident and the founder of Sinclair Oil Company.

Sarah received the typical royalty deal of 12.5 percent. If oil came in, she would be set. One hundred forty-three Freedmen minors had similar opportunities, but, according to the Muskogee Times-Democrat in the spring of 1910, these children ended up in orphanages, dumped there by guardians who filched their wealth. When poor kids became “plute” (plutocrats/wealthy), courts assigned them guardians, usually whites with sway; many billed for false expenses and kept profits from the sale of their land. These “grafters,” comprised of whites, blacks, and parents, were prosecuted. Murder became a byproduct of greed.

In a scheme to claim the wealth of two Creek Freedmen, 12-year-old Herbert and 10-year-old Stella Sells, two men — one black and one white — were sentenced to life in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary for placing dynamite under the children’s bedroom in the early hours of March 23, 1911, and causing their murders from the explosion. Likely, in such a small locale, Sarah knew them.

Sarah’s first oil well came in August 1913, producing 105,000 gallons of oil each day. In a time when a nickel bought an ice cream soda, she netted more than $300 a day ($7,000 in 2015 currency). Published drilling updates reported Sarah ended up with over 50 completed wells on her property and the area exceeded the famed Glenn Pool production.

The Times-Democrat broadcast that Sarah owned one of the greatest gushers in the Belt, producing 4,800 barrels or 200,000 gallons of oil the first day. With limited mass communication, newspapers relied on each other to cobble together their national stories. Reporters were seldom sent into the field to get the scoop. It was often cut-and-paste.

Major newspapers around the country, as well as international news sources in Germany, Australia, and Amsterdam, sensationalized Sarah’s situation with bold headlines and mistaken text. From Chicago Defender (the leading black-owned paper in the U.S.):

• November 1913: “Richest Colored Girl Forced to Live in Shack” claimed the white guardian made “a fabulous sum of money a year,” doling out only a “few dollars a month” for Sarah’s care; insisted she would be better with a black guardian; berated her parents as “ignorant” and “too ignorant to insist on a good education and befitting comfort for her.”

• November 1913: “Brown Skinned Colored Girl Made White” has a dateline of Guthrie, Oklahoma. The text says, “Oklahoma passed a law declaring all Indians white and is about to make an Afro-American young lady the same hue on account of her millions. She would be given special privilege to ride across the state in a Pullman car where it is denied others of her race.” It continues, “White People Alarmed” and “…They do not like such wealth belonging to a girl of Afro-American blood so Oklahoma is passing a law to the effect that this brown girl will be white.”

• March 1914: The paper asked, “Where Is Sarah Rector?” and responded, “Not in Alabama! Not in Oklahoma!” The article claimed her disappearance was a kidnapping, or a “trick” by (white guardian) T.J. Porter designed to hide and offset the call for a black guardian or she was murdered. They implored Sarah be found.

• March 1914: “Find Sarah Rector,” text by John A. Melby, included: “Little Sarah Rector cannot be hid. She is of too much importance to her race.”

• April 1914: “Little Sarah Rector Found” included: the “Afro-American girl with the $15,000 income per month is found at home in good health.”

Elsewhere, Washington Post, in January 1914, proclaimed, “Oil Made Pickaninny.[1] Rich.” The article claimed Sarah was “ignorant, with apparently little mental capacity.” It did show she had a new home and Judge Thomas Leahy had to approve “every nickel spent on her welfare.”

The Salt Lake Telegram, The Oregonian, and American Magazine, in 1914 and 1915, profiled Sarah as the “bewildered little ten-year-old girl” who had a “big income” but still wore tattered dresses and slept each night in a big armchair beside her six siblings in a two-room prairie house in Muskogee, Oklahoma. The accounts of her mother dying of tuberculosis prior to 1913 and her father passing in prison in 1914, orphaning 10-year-old Sarah, also proved false. Joseph died in 1922 just months before Sarah’s first marriage, and Rosa lived a long life, passing away in Kansas City, Missouri, with Sarah and the remaining family close at hand.

Historian Tonya Bolden, author of Searching for Sarah Rector, a winner of the Coretta Scott King Honor, sat in her New York City office and warned that “we need discernment with ‘first drafts’ of history — the farther the periodicals, both black and white, from Oklahoma, the more distorted the picture of Sarah they painted.” The articulate writer added that it is “better to rest on research and reason than on scuttlebutt.” Yet, emotions ran high in the early awakening of American racial justice.

All of the media attention alarmed the NAACP in New York City, especially their special agent, attorney James C. Waters Jr., and one of the NAACP founders who was the publisher/editor of their publication, Crisis. The editor was the famed social justice advocate, W.E.B. Du Bois, the first black Ph.D. graduate of Harvard University. Oklahoma Governor Lee Cruce wrote to Waters that Sarah “has been exceptionally well-managed” and, essentially, to mind his own business. In contrast, Muskogee County Judge Leahy proved to be a more gracious recipient of numerous Du Bois interrogatories. The activist implored the judge give him the “facts.” Leahy responded that the information he gave to him was his to use at his discretion, “as I have no desire for it to be treated confidential.”

A weekly, billed as “the oldest colored paper in Oklahoma,” Twine’s Muskogee Cimeter, cheered, “It takes an awful big man to give the Negro a square deal and Muskogee’s judge is such a man.”

Among Du Bois’ concerns were allegations by the Defender of Sarah’s guardian gouging her funds, actual oil revenues she received, her education, her standard of living, and if her guardian was white.

Leahy wrote the allowed guardian fees were between 2–6 percent and her guardian, T.J. Porter, received $900 to date, much less than 2 percent of Sarah’s income. He explained Porter had negotiated $40,000 in first-mortgage loans at 8 percent — twice her possible returns from a bank deposit account. Leahy continued she did not receive $15,000 a month from her oil wells, but rather for the eight months since the first payment in October 1913. She had deposits totaling $54,490, or less than $7,000 ($170,000 in 2015 dollars) a month.

The judge’s report related that Sarah and her sister were set to attend a prestigious school in Tuskegee, Alabama, in the fall of that year, 1914. Regarding accommodations, Sarah and her family lived in a new five-room cottage with a well, outbuildings, and other improvements. The judge had approved every expense for the construction and furnishing of the $1,700 home. Leahy’s documents emphasized his insistence that Sarah own her home and the land beneath it.

Mr. Thomas Jefferson Porter was her guardian and he was white; “It is true,” Leahy confirmed. He continued, “The parents themselves selected him. T.J. Porter had been the family’s benefactor for years and long before there was any probability of them ever having money.”

Like most of the Freedmen, Joseph Rector was not an educated man, and he suffered to provide for his family. T.J. Porter was officially made guardian by a request from Joseph that was granted by the court in July 1913, one month before Sarah’s first oil strike.

Sarah had income from loans, savings bonds, Muskogee real estate that included rental income from several stores and the Busy Bee Hotel and Cafe, leasing income for 2,000 acres of valuable river-bottom farmland, as well as the oil royalties. She had a double-barreled sentry — a white guardian who was not a “grafter” and a white judge who oversaw all her financial transactions.

Asked about Sarah’s black-white situation, regarding her treatment in a negative environment, Ms. Bolden offered, “The roles that Porter and Leahy played in Sarah’s life remind us that we really do need to avoid generalizations and that even during racially charged times, there have been and are cases of trust across the color line.” She continued, “Greed knows no color.” The education-oriented scholar reported Sarah went to Tuskegee Institute.

Indeed, in the fall of 1914, at the urging of Judge Leahy, 12-year-old Sarah and her older sister, Rebecca, enrolled at Tuskegee Institute’s elementary school, called the Children’s House. The young Rector girls studied at the famed institution for several years, away from the antics of ambitious detractors in Muskogee who continued battling for her war chest.

Court documents show Sarah and Rebecca were preparatory students at a black university, Fisk University in Nashville, in 1917. Porter requested the court in a May document for $350 to cover school expenses and railroad fare to bring them home for the summer.

T.J. Porter was the kingpin of Sarah’s fortune. In August of 1917, he stepped down “under fire” amid legal accusations that he and his attorney had taken more than their fair share of Sarah’s assets. Although the disgraced Porter was found innocent, his attorney, Edward Curd Jr., received a guilty verdict for taking “secret commissions” or kickbacks from real estate deals totaling $8,500 and lost his license to lawyer.

Perhaps, motivated to distance themselves from these events and those still grabbing at the 13-year-old’s fortune, the entire Rector family moved to Kansas City, Missouri, in the fall 1917.

Sarah Rector arrived in Kansas City with the spotlight still shining. Local headlines trumpeted her arrival.

The Kansas City Sun, a black-owned newspaper, under the headline “The Richest Negro Girl in the World Now Lives Here,” noted that Sarah and her three siblings attended the Attucks,[2] School and all were “quiet, mannerly and neat in their appearance and deportment.” The story mentioned her income of $700 a day, as well as a summary of Sarah’s holdings. Due to extreme modesty, it said, the paper was unable to obtain a photograph.

The Rectors moved into a temporary residence along one of the grand boulevards of Kansas City, The Paseo. This grand street, divided by heavily treed islands, contrasted with their rustic road in Muskogee. The corner house abutted the two-square-block park called The Parade, the site of a pond, swimming pool, parade grounds, ball fields, and, in the winter, a huge skating rink. While they attended school and played in the park, Sarah’s empire grew.

During 1921, Sarah paid $20,000 cash for a brick-and-stone mansion in the black district at 2000 East 12th Street (12th and Euclid), just six blocks from The Parade. The family lived in this house that became known as the “Rector Mansion.” Her youngest brother, Roy, was squired from this residence to school in a chauffer-driven Rolls-Royce. At one time, Sarah owned the entire block. Yet, she still faced the onslaught of greedy, legal wranglers who claimed she was not fit to handle her financial affairs.

With her worth estimated at $11 million, Sarah reached the legal milestone of 18 in March 1922, officially freed of guardian oversight. At last, able to manage her own empire, she was free of the shackles and protection created by the court system.

She bought real estate in Kansas City, drove expensive cars, had the best motor trade insurance broker, and dressed in fine clothing, jewels, and furs. The stock market was rocketing skyward and oil was still flowing. This was the decade of living the high life.

With the roaring ‘20s in full swing, Sarah was ready to breathe in the gusto of life; the nucleus of the Kansas City Jazz Age and roaring dance halls, filled with attractive revelers, was just round the corner at 18th and Vine.

She was a looker. According to her brother Roy, she was “very beautiful and of average height and weight and she had beautiful hair.” Her appearance attracted attention.

She met Kenneth Campbell, a 19-year-old black student who had just graduated from the district’s Lincoln High School. He was on the University of Kansas football team. On November 3, 1922, The Kansas City Sun announced, “High School Boy Marries Miss Rector: Kenneth Campbell, Graduate of Lincoln, Wed to Rich Girl During September.” The writer tells of the September 16 wedding in Lawrence, Kansas, witnessed only by Sarah’s mother and the bridegroom’s grandmother. The announcement of the wedding was made by Miss Rector’s attorney, C.H. Calloway.

The article mentions Mr. and Mrs. Campbell were involved in a serious car accident in late October after attending a football game in Sedalia, Missouri, involving Kenneth’s former high school team.

Another newspaper, The Kansas City Call, a black-owned newspaper, reported that the accident occurred as they attempted to turn a corner — the car skidded and turned “turtle,” injuring Sarah and a passenger while fracturing three of Kenneth’s ribs.

Further, the publication called for the white newspaper, The Kansas City Star, to either “prove or retract their allegations” in their account that attempted to “besmirch” Sarah’s character.

Apparently, the injured Campbells were taken to the “colored” General Hospital #2, also known as the Wheatley-Provident Hospital, where they recovered in the facility for several days before returning to the mansion to convalesce and attend to business.

In addition to buying local real estate, Kenneth and Sarah opened a Hupmobile,[3] car dealership in the heart of the black entertainment district at 19th and Vine. The racial climate made it difficult for blacks to own a car dealership and some white Kansas City dealerships did not allow blacks to test drive their cars.

Some recount that Sarah loved to drive her big cars, perhaps her silver-plated Lincoln, around town at a high rate of speed, resulting in traffic stops. The cops would be confronted with the question, “Do you know who I am?” Often, there was no ticket.

Flaunting downtown Kansas City department stores’ segregation and Jim Crow laws that barred African Americans from upper-end, white establishments, Sarah routinely strolled through Jacquard’s, choosing expensive diamonds and other jewelry. Defying 1920s racial guidelines, Sarah used fitting rooms to try on clothing before purchasing. She paraded around big-name stores. Her money seemed to eliminate barriers.

Stories account for the twosome becoming local royalty. They entertained famous African-American legends in their mansion on East 12th. Duke Ellington and Count Basie rubbed elbows with Sarah and Kenneth. Sports figures like Heavyweight Champions of the World Joe Louis and Jack Johnson went a few rounds in their home.

They had three boys: Kenneth Jr. and Leonard preceded the birth of Clarence in August 1929. Clarence Rector told a Kansas City Call reporter his mother wore a “beautiful, full-length, black-fur coat” and drove a green and black Cadillac. He added, “She had rich tastes.”

The stock market crash began in late October 1929. Sarah’s investments took a sudden turn south; her fortune nearly disappeared. Speculation is that Kenneth had used family funds to invest in a number of enterprises that became losses. One source hints there may have been a connection with the local “mafia.” The marriage dissolved around 1930. Kenneth headed to Chicago to open a Hupmobile dealership with Kansas Citian Homer B. Roberts and took the older two boys to live with him in Chicago.[4] Sarah sold the mansion to the Adkins Funeral Home and moved to a more modest home at 2440 Brooklyn Avenue and, subsequently, 2418 Campbell, according to Clarence. The mansion sold again, this time to C.K. Kerford Funeral home. Sarah’s mother, Rosa, and the rest of her children lived nearby on Wabash Street. The reduction of her real estate holdings continued.

By 1933, Sarah’s Oklahoma real estate had been sold or suffered foreclosure, and she sold her allotment in 1932 to Herman Epstein for $100.

In 1934, Sarah married Williams A. Crawford, a baker, who owned a restaurant at 18th and Vine. The 1940 Federal Census shows them still living with Clarence on 12th and Euclid. But, unfortunately, an extended period of uneventful living would end violently.

Tragedy struck Sarah’s family when Kenneth Jr. was gunned down and killed in Kansas City during the 1940s. Though, amid the darkness, a bright spot appeared.

Beginning in 1946, the Indian Claims Commission held hearings regarding possible misuse and fraud of government-taken tribal lands. Restitution was ordered and Sarah received a settlement, although, the finances of the agreement is unknown. Records sought by Clarence from the Bureau of Indian Affairs were denied.

Sarah bought a small farm east of Overland Park, Kansas, at 4800 Riverside Drive, a few miles from Kansas City, Missouri. Family spent weekend time with her there, and she maintained her stable of Cadillacs and Lincolns.

Eventually, Sarah Rector Campbell Crawford suffered a stroke. Rushed by family members from her rural setting on July 22, 1967, she died in the General Hospital, at the age of 63. Her wake was held at the Kerford Funeral Home, the building formerly known as the Rector Mansion. Her relatives escorted her to Muskogee for a proper church funeral and internment in Taft’s Black Jack Cemetery.

She returned home to Oklahoma, this time resting next to her paternal guardians.


Footnotes:

1.  The origin of pickaninny may be derived from the Portuguese pequenino,  meaning “little one.” Once a term used in an affectionate way among slaves in the West Indies,pickaninny is now considered prerogative/insulting.

2.  Crispus Attucks was born into slavery in Framingham, Massachusetts, around 1723, to a mother who was a Native American and an African-American father. He joined a crowd who protested the British presence in Boston and became the first casualty of the Boston Massacre in America’s fight for independence.

3.  The Hupp Motor Company began production in 1909. In 1912 Hupp became the first U.S. automaker to use all-steel bodies. Producing the two-seater Special Roadster and four-door touring models by 1925. The company closed in 1940, but not before a struggling dealer, Carl Wickman of Hibbing, Minnesota, started using an unsold seven-passenger Hupmobile with “Bus Andy” Anderson to transport iron ore miners for 15 cents a ride. Their enterprise led to their creation of the Greyhound bus line.

4.  According to the Kansas City Call, Kenneth was a retired lieutenant colonel, a Chicago alderman, and the right-hand-man of Mayor Daley. Clarence visited him in Chicago and remembered that his father was “the best dresser in city office.”

 


Originally published in This Land, Vol. 6, Issue 5, March 1, 2015.