Wednesday, March 19, 2014

An Embarrassment of Riches

March 19 - Today's post contributed by Tonya Bolden

An Embarrassment of Riches

In 1906, four-year-old Sarah Rector received a gift that kept on giving: a land allotment of roughly 160 acres in Indian Territory. This was shortly before Indian Territory, along with Oklahoma Territory, became the state of Oklahoma.

And rough Sarah’s acres were—horrible for farming—but down below were barrels and barrels of black gold! In the summer of 1913, at the tender age of eleven Sarah Rector was in the money! This girl was living with her family in the weather-whipped cabin in which she had been born. This was on the outskirts of the small town of Taft, Oklahoma, not far from Muskogee.

Sarah Rector was a “Creek Freedmen,” as black members of the Creek Nation were called, even those, like Sarah who had not been enslaved by Creek Indians (as Sarah’s grandparents and other blacks had been).

Sarah Rector was one of many black and Indian children in early Oklahoma who wound up with oil-rich land after the U.S. government put an end to Indian nations in Indian Territory holding the land in common. Instead, they were forced into individual land ownership. With the Creek Nation the government mandated that each member receive 160 acres more or less.

Year after year, as oil on Sarah’s land kept flowing so did her money from her 12.5 percent of the oil produced by outfits with drilling rights to Sarah’s land. When she turned eighteen in 1920 this lucky young lady had a net worth of more than $10 million in today’s dollars. I cover all this and more in my book Searching for Sarah Rector: The Richest Black Girl in America.

How does her story fit into this site’s 2014 theme? Was Sarah Rector a woman of Character, Courage, and Commitment?

As I reveal in the book, my search for Sarah Rector was rather frustrating as I never got a hold of her—while learning plenty about the drama around her embarrassment of riches. I can’t help but feel that she was in a sense held hostage by her money—money managed by guardians until she was in her twenties, money that brought out the worst in warped, greedy people. I imagine that Sarah had precious little space or peace of mind to develop into her best self. Oil-rich children like Sarah were swindled, kidnapped, murdered. Oil-rich children had to be on guard. Dangers aside, a sudden “rags-to-riches” experience is often very traumatic.

There is evidence that, as a woman, Sarah Rector enjoyed the “good things” in life, from expensive cars to jazzy clothing. However, I never found proof that she devoted some of her money to the endeavors of women who come to mind when we think of Character, Courage, and Commitment, women such as educator and civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune and activist-journalist Lucile Bluford of Kansas City, Missouri, where Rector lived as an adult. Then again, our oil millionaire may well have made donations to many worthy causes anonymously.

While I searched for Sarah Rector I thought a lot about money, a lot about women and money and women’s financial literacy: how we spend, how we save, how we invest.

I still think about women and money today, especially considering the revelations in "The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink." This report, produced by Maria Shriver in partnership with the American Center for Progress, was released on January 12, 2014.

“For too many American women, the dream of ‘having it all’ has morphed into ‘just hanging on,’” said Maria Shriver, daughter of Sargent Shriver, LBJ’s lead general in the War on Poverty when I was a girl. []

Those “too many American women” of whom Maria Shriver speaks are not a few million women, but 42 million souls living in or on the edge of poverty. These 42 million women have about 28 million children depending on them.

According to the Census Bureau, in 2010 there were nearly 157 million females in the nation (a little more than 50 percent of the population). Of that number, about 40 million were age 19 and under and about 117 million age twenty and up. []

So if 42 million of roughly 117 million women in America live in or on the brink of poverty, then nearly one in three is in dire financial straits, a stressor that often leads to mental and physical health problems. And, remember, some of these women have children.

Poverty in America is an income of $11,670 for an individual.
Poverty in America is an income of 15,730 for a family of two.
Poverty in America is an income of $23,850 for a family of four.

Wealth in America?

It’s Oprah Winfrey with a net worth of 2.9 billion; Abigail Johnson (Fidelity Financial Services) with a net worth of more than 17 billion, and Jacqueline Badger Mars (think Mars bars and M&Ms) with a net worth of more than $20 billion. I certainly do not begrudge these women their riches. I’m just reminding us all that we do not live in a poor nation and yet we have millions of women—along with girls, boys and men—in hardship. What’s more the wealth gap is widening. “Income for the highest-earning 1% of Americans soared 31% from 2009 through 2012, after adjusting for inflation,” reported AP Business Writer Hannah Dreier in February 2014. []

American women (and men) of Character, Courage, and Commitment have a job to do.

The job of coming to grips with the howling poverty in our land.
The job of understanding the systemic causes.
The job of making straight-up donations of cash, goods, and services.
The job of teaching people to fish.

We can all do something. When I dream a world, the generals in charge of a new War on Poverty include women with an embarrassment of riches: women who earned it, inherited it, or, like Sarah Rector, just got lucky.

Tonya Bolden, a native New Yorker, is a magna cum laude baccalaureate of Princeton University with a master’s degree from Columbia University. She has authored, co-authored, and edited more than thirty-five books, most for children and young adults. Her work has received a Coretta Scott King Honor Award, a James Madison Book Award, a Cleveland Public Library Sugarman Award, a Virginia Library Association Jefferson Cup, and a NCTE Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children.


  1. I think this story is so fascinating. I came across her while researching about Creek Native Americans.

  2. Don't forget Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, now worth over a billion!

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