David Sedley
Rabbi, teacher, author, husband, father
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Quiet heroes: Parshat Pinchas

The Torah portion spends few words on a woman who, unlike Zelophehad’s daughters, got her due without a fuss
Sarah Rector c. 1920. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
Sarah Rector c. 1920. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Sarah Rector was a young American girl, great-granddaughter of freed slaves, who became so wealthy, the Oklahoma state legislature tried to declare that she was white.

She was born in 1902, in what was then called Indian Territory, but today is part of the state of Oklahoma. The “Five Civilized Tribes” – the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek (Muscogee), and Seminoles – were evicted from their traditional lands in the southeast of the USA, and forcibly moved to the west of the Mississippi river. By 1836, the Creek had ceded its land in what became Alabama and moved to Indian Territory.

The Cherokee Nation resisted relocation until 1838, when they were evicted, marching along the Trail of Tears in which thousands died (as we begin the Three Weeks leading up to the destruction and exile of the Jewish people, I can’t help but think of this as a modern parallel).

Gallery of the Five Civilized Tribes: Sequoyah (Cherokee), Pushmataha (Choctaw), Selecta (Muscogee/Creek), a “Characteristic Chickasaw Head”, and Osceola (Seminole). (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

The poor parcel of land the government gave them in exchange became known as Indian Territory.

When these nations moved west, they took their slaves – who they had purchased from the Europeans who lived nearby – with them. Among those who were forcibly removed were Sarah’s Rector’s great-grandmother, Mollie, who was owned by Chief Opothle Yoholo, and Mollie’s husband Benjamin, owned by another Creek man, Reilly Grayson.

During the Civil War (1861-1865), most of the tribes fought on the side of the Confederacy, because they were promised a state of their own if the Union was defeated.

Routes of southern removals to the first Indian Territory of the Five Civilized Tribes. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 declared that all slaves in the Confederacy must be freed. In 1865, the US passed the Thirteenth Amendment, which made slavery illegal. But in practice, the Five Nations, who did not belong to any of the States governed by the Constitution, continued to own slaves until the federal legislature negotiated a treaty with them which came into effect on December 6, 1866.

Former slaves of the Muscogee Creek tribe, who were freed in 1866, became known as Creek Freedmen, though in the Creek language, they were called Estelvste, which translates as “black people.” Most of the Freedmen chose to remain living in Indian Territory and were given full citizenship in the Creek Nation.

Sarah Rector’s parents, Rose and Joseph, were both born in 1881. Their grandparents had been enslaved, but following the 1866 treaty, they were legally considered part of the Muscogee Creek Nation.

First page of Dawes Act. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

In 1887, President Grover Cleveland signed the Dawes Act into law. This act removed tribal lands from Native American communal ownership and divided it into allotments which were distributed to the tribe’s members and became their private property. Each person would get 160 acres of land.

The purpose of the act was to break up the tribes and assimilate their members into American society. As a result, between 1887 and 1934, Native Americans lost control of about 100 million acres of the 150 million acres of land they formerly held.

The Act was implemented on a tribe-by-tribe basis over the next few decades. So it was not until the Curtis Act of 1898 that the “Five Civilized Tribes” had their land taken away and redistributed to individuals. This was partly to further disenfranchise the Native Americans, but also in order to create the state of Oklahoma.

After the members of the Creek and the other tribes had each received their allotment, the government took “surplus” land, declared it “Unassigned” and at noon on April 22, 1889, 50,000 people lined up at the border of Indian Territory to claim their own piece of land. This became known as the Land Rush of 1889, and probably deserves its own blog at some point in the future.

Settlers waiting to stake their claims on the unassigned lands. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Meanwhile, all members of the Creek tribe (including their former slaves) who were born before March 4, 1907, were entitled to a parcel of land of approximately 160 acres. The Rector family, along with a few hundred other freedmen, moved together and built a town called Twine in Muskogee County. However, in 1904, they decided to rename the town Taft, after President Theodore Roosevelt’s Secretary of War (and future president) William Howard Taft.

When the government allocated land, Sarah’s father, Joe, got parcel 1337. Rebecca, her older sister, received parcel 5134. Both these pieces of land were in Taft. However, Sarah and Joe Jr. were still minors, and they received allotments 50 miles northwest of their home, in Creek County. Sarah’s younger siblings missed out entirely.

Tonya Bolden explained in her excellent book, “Searching for Sarah Rector: The Richest Black Girl in America” that the free land was not as useful as one might have thought:

When assigned to her, Sarah’s 160 acres (159.14 acres, to be exact) were valued at a measly $556.50 – about three and a half dollars an acre. It was no-account land. Rough. Chock-full of rocks.

Not only was the land useless as farmland, it was also a liability – the family had to pay taxes on it. Somehow, the Rectors had to come up with about $30 per year for each parcel of land.

Sarah Rector’s land allotment (marked in blue), from ‘Hastain’s township plats of the Creek Nation.’ (Public Domain/

Sarah’s father tried to sell the land and get what he could for it. But first, even though he was father to Rebecca, Sarah and Joe Jr., he needed the court’s permission before he could sell the land. To quote Bolden again:

Mr. Rector petitioned the Muckogee County Court to make him the legal guardian of Rebecca, Sarah and Joe Jr. This would allow him to manage their land, along with any money and personal property they might have.

Mr. Rector’s wish was granted on Christmas Eve, 1909. As his children’s legal guardian, he could now set about turning their acres from money-drainers into moneymakers.

Not until a year later did Mr. Rector have any success. Working with lawyer O. Benjamin Jefferson, he sold Rebecca’s land for $1,700, a good price at the time.

However, instead of selling Sarah’s land, he decided to lease it to the Devonian Oil Company. Oklahoma was at the very start of an oil boom, and oil had been discovered about 20 miles southeast of Sarah’s allotment. In February 1911, Joe signed a deal with the oil company which netted him a dollar an acre for the lease, making a total of $160 on the deal. But a year later, Devonian cancelled the lease.

Sarah Rector in 1912. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

On March 18, Joe went back to court to ask permission to sell Sarah’s land. However, before he could sell it, a man named Frank Barnes signed a deal to lease the land for 50 cents an acre, bringing in another $80 for the family. And soon afterwards, Barnes sold the rights to drill on that land to a man named B. B. Jones for a dollar. Sarah was to get 12.5% of any earnings the oilman made from her land.

It took months to prepare the land, bring in the rigs and dig the wells. So there was a long, nervous wait, for Jones and the Rectors to find out whether black gold lay under Sarah’s rocky, dusty land. It was only on Sunday, August 31, 1913 that the Morning Examiner, based in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, announced that B. B. Jones would drill a test of Sarah Rector’s land that day.

And what riches they discovered. On September 6, 1913, the Kansas City Star ran a headline saying that Sarah was worth millions of dollars. The article continued breathlessly (and with more than a little hyperbole):

Sarah Rector, who lives just west of Muskogee, is a girl, and she has an income that makes President Wilson’s salary or the salary of a railroad or insurance president look like small change. Her income now is more than $112,000 a year.

It is the old story of the lucky allottee and the oil well. Sarah is the descendant of a Creek freedman. She had nothing to do with the selection of her allotment and probably has never seen it and does not know where it is.

But it is 160 acres of land and upon it has just been drilled the biggest producing well in the Mid-Continent field. This is what is known as the Jones Gusher, near the town of Cushing, and it is doing twenty-five hundred barrels of oil every day and the oil is worth over $1 a barrel, which means that the well is producing over $2,500 a day and Sarah gets one-eighth of this.

Sarah and her family were now rich beyond their wildest dreams.

However, since Sarah was under 18 and very wealthy, she had to have a court-appointed white guardian to look after her money. Often, these guardians managed to enrich themselves at the expense of the people they were supposed to be helping. And entrenched racism caused many people to ignore what was being done.

Oklahoma became a state on November 16, 1907. A month later, on December 18, 1907, the first bill passed by the legislature, Senate Bill One, was that all public transport must be segregated. All trains and street cars had to have separate carriages for whites and non-whites, and separate waiting rooms for each race.

However, in Sarah’s case, things worked out well. The court appointed T. J. Porter, a cattle rancher who lived a few miles south of Taft, to be her guardian. He seems to have genuinely worked in the best interests of his charge.

But many others were not happy that Sarah had become so wealthy. The Colorado Statesman reported on Saturday, November 22, 1913:

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. Some of the whites want to enamel her, others to use skin success so that she might pass. But the politicians are becoming so stirred up that they favor making her white by passing a law to that effect. If so, it will be the first brown skin girl to be made white by law.

With all the traits and characteristics of an Afro American she has too much money and must be white. It’s the same old idea of the white man that whenever a Negro achieves any distinction, either in the scientific or literary world, some white men want to declare them white.

Conversely, the influential, black-owned Chicago Defender ran a headline stating that, “Richest Colored Girl Forced to Live in Shack.” The paper accused Porter of taking advantage of the Rector family and leaving them in poverty.

Civil Rights activist, W.E.B. Du Bois, wrote to Judge Thomas Leahy, who had appointed Porter, to find out the truth of the situation. Leahy wrote a long reply, dated June 11, 1914, explaining his personal involvement in the case, and giving a full accounting of the money. He said that he had arranged for Sarah to buy land and build a home for the family to live in. He detailed how her money had been invested at a good rate of interest. He also clarified that:

As to this ward having a white Guardian, this is true. The parents themselves selected him, his name being T. J. Porter, a cattleman and neighbor of this family, who has been their benefactor for years and long before there was any probability of their ever having any money, and as far as I know, he never has been Guardian of any persons other than three of these Rector children.

Although she was still a very young girl, the newspapers reported that Sarah, her guardian and Judge Leahy, received many letters pleading for charity, requesting investment in moneymaking schemes and even offers of marriage. They were all declined.

So what happened to Sarah Rector and her wealth?

By the time she turned 18 and was able to manage her own money, she was already a millionaire. She and her family moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where Sarah purchased a home on 12th Street which today is known as Rector House. She owned stocks, bonds, businesses and property.

In September 1922, 20-year-old Sarah Rector married Kenneth Campbell, who was aged 19. They had three children together – Kenneth Jr., Leonard and Clarence. By 1930 the couple had divorced, and Kenneth Sr. moved to Chicago.

Sarah remarried in 1934 to a restaurant owner named William Crawford. On July 22, 1967, following a stroke, Sarah Rector passed away. She is buried a the cemetery in Taft , just a few miles from where she was born.

Is there a lesson in the story of Sarah Rector? Notwithstanding the racism of the time, she was lucky. Her wealth was not the result of her actions. But neither did she waste it. Although she lost money during the Depression, she was still a wealthy woman at the time of her death.

She was fortunate that both the county judge and her guardian were decent, upright men who made good decisions on her behalf. She was lucky that her parents were the sort of people who were on good terms with their neighbors and were able to choose Porter as their daughter’s guardian.

But she did not use her wealth for extravagant acts of charity, or to advance the civil rights movement. The fact that she was not declared white by the state legislature was not because of her actions.

Actually, there is nothing particularly remarkable about Sarah Rector. But perhaps that is exactly what makes her truly remarkable. To have all that wealth from such a young age and yet to live a normal life, remaining close to her parents and siblings, her second husband and her children.

And now I want to turn to a woman who gets a very brief mention in this week’s Torah reading of Pinchas, who I think was equally remarkable in a similar way.

Numbers 26 lists the names of all the families of the Children of Israel, who will inherit the land of Israel. “To these you will divide the land as an inheritance, according to the number of names,” (26:53).

Among all the names of men who headed the families, verse 46 states simply, “The name of Asher’s daughter was Serah.”

Serah seems out of place here. Why is she listed among all the men and their families?

Rashi explains that her name is mentioned out of respect for her advanced age. According to the Talmud (Sotah 13a), Serah was one of the 70 people who came to Egypt with Jacob. Genesis (46:17) says: “The children of Asher, Imnah, and Ishvah, and Ishvi, and Beriah, and Serah their sister.”

If so, Serah must have been close to 300 years old.

Ramban, however, gives a different explanation based on Onkelos’s translation, which says that this Serah was not actually Asher’s daughter, but his step-daughter – the daughter of Asher’s wife. The family tree becomes somewhat convoluted in trying to understand the Ramban; but his main point is that Serah is mentioned here because, just like the families of men listed, she and her descendants also received a portion of the land of Israel after the land had been conquered.

In the next chapter (Numbers 27), we read of Zelophehad’s daughters, Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, who confronted Moses, demanding a portion in Israel.

“Why should our father’s name be removed from the families for he had no son; give us a portion amongst our father’s bothers,” (Numbers 27:4).

Moses asked God, who agreed that Zelophehad’s five daughters could receive a portion of land, provided they married a husband from their own tribe. In a sense, Zelophehad’s daughters were feminist pioneers, asking for and receiving that which they deserved. They were trailblazers leading the way for future women to demand their fair share.

But what about Serah? She inherited a portion in Israel without confronting Moses. She didn’t make a fuss and only merited one line in the Torah.

But that doesn’t mean that she was not an important woman. Presumably, she lived her life, and at some point, married and had children who inherited her land. She became known for only one thing — living a very long life (we know here age based on a Midrash that says as a young girl she told Jacob that Joseph was still alive. And that she was still alive when the Israelites left Egypt, so Moses could ask her where Joseph’s coffin was).

But here, she gets only a few words to allude that she received a share in the land of Israel. For her and her family, inheriting a portion of land was probably more important than anything else we know about her.

There is a message here. Often, we pigeonhole people. They become known to us for one thing, and we know nothing else about them. And if they don’t fit into the box we create for them, we try to make them fit, or else ignore that aspect of their life.

In Serah’s case, she was almost overlooked, hidden amongst the list of tribes. For Sarah Rector, the legislature wanted to pass a law to change the color of her skin, because otherwise they could not cope with her immense wealth.

We must remember that people have many facets to their lives. The one thing we know about a person may be one of the things they consider the least important. Or it may lead us to have a completely incorrect impression of who they are. If we want to know who someone is, we should certainly get to know various facets and recognize that even then we are making our own judgements. Not take one fact, and then place them in a box.

But there is another message here. Our importance to those around us may not be what makes the headlines. If the one fact others know about us is a small part of the story, we must celebrate the mundane and the normal, which is a far better indicator of who we are.

Sarah Rector became incredibly wealthy. Serah lived to an incredibly old age. But what makes them heroes to me is that they lived regular, productive lives.

It’s not about the headlines and it’s not about the title. What matters is how you live your life.

We need activists and those advocating for civil rights to improve society for everyone. But society also needs the rest of us, who live our lives and do our thing. We may never be more than a footnote in the global history books. But each of us can still contribute in our own ways and make an impact on others around us.


I read Tonya Bolden’s book “Searching for Sarah Rector: The Richest Black Girl in America” several times while researching and writing this blog.

I’ve also started sharing more of my Torah thoughts on Facebook. Follow my page, Rabbi Sedley.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. He currently teaches online at WebYeshiva. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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