Have you ever heard of Sarah Rector? If not, you’re not alone: Most people haven’t. In 1914, however, at the age of just 12, she became an overnight millionaire. Scared of a little black girl being one of the wealthiest people in the country, the authorities legally declared her white. This is her story.
Sarah Rector: The Richest Little Girl in America
After the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement, slaves in the United States were freed. While they could no longer be forced to work for free, racism and discrimination still prevented them from doing and having things that white people had. People were terrified at the idea of black people having any power or influence. Young Sarah Rector was the descendant of slaves owned by a tribe of Native Americans in Oklahoma.
Her grandparents were the ones freed from slavery and therefore 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. This included children, so Sarah received her own plot of land. (1)
Her plot was valued at $556.50. Typically, however, slaves weren’t granted what was considered “good” plots of land, like those by the creek. In fact, the one given to Sarah was considered unsuitable for farming and was 60 miles away from where she lived. That, coupled with a $30 annual land tax, Sarah almost lost the land altogether. That is until someone discovered oil on her land. So much, in fact, that at 12 years of age, she became an overnight millionaire. (2)
The 12 Year Old Millionaire
The little girl began receiving marriage proposals in the mail and naturally was receiving a lot of attention from the press. The state of Oklahoma was quite alarmed and concerned about a black person owning so much wealth. Not knowing what to do, they legally declared her white. This was, in part, for her to be able to use first-class trains and other things that, at that time, only white people we allowed to have.
Sarah Rector’s daily income was $300 per day. Today that would be equivalent to making $7500 each day. Unfortunately, because of the heavy racism, black people with money were assigned a white person to “oversee” their assets. These guardians often stole money and property from the people that they were supposed to be helping, again because of the belief that black people shouldn’t have that kind of wealth.
People Came To Her Defense
Knowing that white people would easily take advantage of such a young girl, the black community rallied around Sarah. The country’s most influential black newspaper, The Chicago Defender, published an article explaining how Sarah’s white “guardian” was mismanaging her estate. Despite her opulent wealth, Sarah still wore shanty dresses and rags. National black leaders such as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois read the article and contacted Sarah’s family. They got the NAACP involved, an organization designed to protect the rights of black children.
The NAACP worked with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the United States Children’s Bureau to change these circumstances. The NAACP begged the question as to why Sarah couldn’t be cared for by someone of her own race who would treat her well rather than someone who would use her for her money.
Booker T. Washington also offered to help Sarah with her education. He moved her to Alabama and enrolled her in a boarding school for teenagers there. She went on to study at the Tuskegee Institute and then Tuskegee University. She then moved to Kansas City with her family, already a well-established millionaire.
A Boss By 18
By the age of 18, Sarah owned a cafe, a boarding house, a bakery, and had many stocks and bonds. She owned 2,000 acres of land and bought a house on 12th Street called Rector Mansion. Sarah got married at 20 and had three sons. She was unafraid to spend her money and lived quite a luxurious lifestyle.
Though she spent much of her money on herself and her family, refusing to try and hide it for the comfort of white people, she did use her money to help those in need, as well. She purchased a stretch limousine to take all the black children of the neighborhood to school, for instance. To this day, the Rector House still stands in Kansas City as a testament to America’s first-ever rich black family.
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- “Money Over Race: The Story of Sarah Rector, The Black Girl So Wealthy She Was Considered To Be White.” Ranker. Genevieve Carlton. September 23, 2021.
- “‘World’s Richest Negro Girl’ inspired media ridicule, fascination, alarm.” Washington Post. Sydney Trent. September 3, 2022.