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Chronicles of KC: Sarah Rector's nieces separate fact from fiction

Rector became Kansas City's 1st Black millionaire
Sarah Rector nieces.png
Posted at 5:08 PM, Mar 02, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-02 23:53:15-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Three sisters, now in their 60s and 70s, sat down with 41 Action News Anchor Kevin Holmes to talk about their aunt, Sarah Rector — who was Kansas City’s first Black millionaire, and at the time, youngest millionaire in the country.

She was one of many descendants of slaves, or freedmen, to receive a land allotment in Oklahoma, where an oil prospector hit a gusher on Rector’s allotment.

Deborah Jean Brown is the middle sister among Rector's three nieces. She recalls going to visit her aunt on her farm.

“She had chickens, cows, calves and stuff like that. Remember the geese?" Brown said, gesturing o her sisters. "The geese chased us.”

41 Action News Anchor Kevin Holmes: “What do you want the public to know about your aunt?

Donna Brown Thompkins, another of Rector’s nieces: “They should know the truth.”

Deborah Jean Brown: “They should know, all the pictures out there of Sarah Rector are not Sarah Rector.”

Historian Diane Euston said there was a real danger to freedmen living in the area. The law required the appointment of a white guardian for minorities, including Rector, who acquired significant wealth.

Many subsequently were killed for their inheritance or to gain the land. Euston says that’s a big reason why the Rector family packed up and moved to Kansas City — where Rector’s mother, Rose Rector, bought a house at 2000 E. 12th Street.

Euston said as soon as the oil was discovered, rumors and inaccuracies started flowing just as freely: “We always know this. You can’t trust everything you read.”

Rosina Marie Graves, another of Rector’s nieces: “They had it that she was an orphan — she was not an orphan — and said that her father died in prison, which is not true.”

According to Euston and Rector’s nieces, there’s a picture of Sarah Rector at the Smithsonian, but it's not her.

Holmes: “So how come no one said anything?”

Brown: “Even when we were kids, my mom and them knew it wasn’t her, but just said, 'Leave it alone. Just let 'em talk.'”

Rector's nieces said she lived at the home on East 12th Street with her husband and sister, the nieces' mom.

Eventually Sarah and her husband moved out and purchased a home near Prospect and Lockridge avenues in KCMO.

Rector's nieces said she bought several other properties in that neighborhood, including a house across the street and an apartment building down the block.

Rector grew to enjoy the finer things in life.

Brown: “She lived a life of luxury. She had money coming in, and she did whatever she pleased with it.”

Thompkins: “I remember the fancy cars she had, big fancy Cadillacs. I remember that. I remember her coming to the house and they’d play cards and sit around and have fun. They would close Emery, Bird and Thayer down, downtown, because we (African Americans) couldn’t go in there and try on clothes. But they closed it down for her to shop.”

There were many layers to Rector's life. While some of what’s circulating online is false, her nieces said there's no doubt that Rector played hard and loved hard.

Brown: “Most of it was, she was a party girl. She loved to party, entertain — and she did — but the flip side is she loved her family.”

Kevin's Chronicles of KC is a year-long series looking at the history of Kansas City. You can read more about the project and other stories at kshb.com/chronicles.