Lauren Henley doesn’t know whether her article about “The Richest Black Girl in America” will ever be made into a movie.
But Steven Spielberg’s film and production company, Amblin Partners, has acquired rights to the story, and for now Henley’s riding a rainbow.
Henley, an assistant professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond, has been following her curiosity and her instincts ever since she left her home in Mechanicville at age 17 to enroll at Washington University in St. Louis, seeking a broader view of the world.
As a young Black girl in Hanover County, she says she saw few role models in her public school classes, with only one female Black teacher in her elementary, middle and high schools.
A historian by training, Henley, 28, was hired by UR two years ago after she earned her doctorate at the University of Texas.
And as they say about Alice’s plunge into Wonderland, things have become “curiouser and curiouser.”
“It was a blind, cold email in my box,” Henley recalls of the first hint that she was about to go down the rabbit hole herself.
The editors of Truly Adventurous, an online digital magazine featuring long-form nonfiction stories, asked Henley to research and write a story about Sarah Rector, a young Black girl who became an overnight millionaire in the early 1900s.
Rector lived in Jim Crow Oklahoma and at age 11 went from picking cotton on the family’s poverty-stricken farm to having millions in the bank, then struggled to keep her money out of the hands of court-appointed white guardians and others.
Her newfound wealth emanated from a highly productive oil well discovered on property that had been set aside for Rector by the federal government.
Rector’s ancestors had been enslaved by the Creek tribe in Oklahoma, and allotments of land had been given to each member of her family in the form of reparations.
“Some 2,500 barrels of oil per day spewed out of Sarah’s property, making it what was then the biggest producing well in one of the biggest oil fields in the country,” Henley wrote in her February 2021 article. “From that first gusher alone, Sarah stood to make more than $114,000 per year — nearly $3 million in today’s dollars.”
“To this day, I don’t know how they found me,” Henley says of her assignment from Truly Adventurous. But she is excited about how it all has turned out.
When she agreed to research and write the story, she was told it might get the attention of someone in Hollywood and that she would be kept in the loop.
Henley says she never told her students in the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at UR about her research into Rector or the possibility of a film, but they found out anyway.
“They’re college kids; they have social media connections I could never dream of,” Henley says, laughing.
The students, Henley says, are riveted by their professor’s Hollywood connection.
“They asked me if we could have a screening party,” she says. “Of course, [I say that] they will all have graduated before any film could ever exist, and also that Amblin has acquired the right to make a film, not necessarily that one will be developed or guaranteed.”
But Henley says that students see what they want to see, and they think it is fun that one of their professors might have a film in the works.
“If it helps them understand that history has a relevance to today, then I’ve done my job,” she says.
Although Sarah Rector’s story has faded in the shuffle of history, it was big news in its day.
“So this is a great fairytale-like story that everyone can relate to,” Henley says. “Who wouldn’t want to wake up as a millionaire? But also, we have to reckon with a lot of injustice that occurred.”
Scouring court records she found online, Henley uncovered repeated requests for money that Rector had made to the court. The young girl bought a buggy, a new wardrobe, furniture, a piano and a phonograph.
She also paid for the construction of a new house for her family, as well as a new barn and chicken house.
“Any financial transaction had to be approved the court,” Henley explains, noting how a money trail using court records can illuminate how a person lives, and how a lifestyle might change.
Meanwhile, other oil wells on Rector’s land also began gushing. From an initial 2,500 barrels, the daily total rose to 3,800.
“Observers predicted that Sarah would break records as one of the richest Black females in United States history and that she would be paying the biggest single tax bill in the state of Oklahoma,” Henley writes in her article.
As Rector’s fortune multiplied, so did the number of people — strangers, suitors and, as Henley expresses it, “smiling white men in suits” — who wanted her to share.
Rector attended two prominent Black institutions — Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and Fisk University in Tennessee — and Henley says that as Rector grew older and better educated, she also became more astute about how to handle her own money.
Through careful planning and a formidable sleight of hand, along with the cooperation of some sympathetic trustees of her fortune, Rector was able to convince reporters and others that she had turned over control of her money to those trustees.
“After the press gleefully reported that Sarah had yielded control of her fortune, those trustees transferred all of her money right back to her and stepped away from the case for good,” Henley writes.
Now, you might be asking yourself how all this translates into leadership studies, which is what Henley teaches at UR.
Henley explains the connection.
“What people may know about leadership but don’t always articulate is that leadership is always a negotiation of power,” she says. “Even with the most subjugated followers, there is a negotiation of power. And I think we see that with Sarah, with the dynamic with her guardians and ultimately with the state of Oklahoma and Missouri,” where she moved later in life.
“For my students in particular,” Henley adds, “it is a useful tale of young people taking charge of their own lives and carving out a space for themselves, even though they feel the rest of the world is kind of against them.”
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