Ohio native spent years looking for female black millionaire

Monday, June 21, 2004

INDEPENDENCE, Mo. -- They slam the jail door on a young man, booked on a minor offense in Kansas City.

That same night, back in 1922 or so, a young black woman appears to bail him out. The jailers must think something's fishy, maybe even say something untoward to her.

She stops that business.

"You don't know who I am, do you?" she says.

The guards look at her. She's wearing a European gown. From her bosom she produces a roll of bills. She peels off $25 and throws it at their feet.

"I'm Sarah Rector," she tells them. She had come for her brother.

Eight decades later, Sarah Rector, Kansas City's first female black millionaire, needed someone to come for her.

Indulged a notion

For the last five years, Geri Sanders would hardly pick up the phone to answer phone calls. A listlessness had moved into her daily life and refused to leave.

The 52-year-old administrative assistant had moved to Independence from Ohio in 1992 with her life partner, Charles Reed, who had come to work for AT&T.

Not long after moving to Independence, he got a notion to sit down and write out his family's history. Sanders sought to indulge him.

Trips to the library put them in touch with a local black genealogy group. The two began digging deeper.

Sanders wound up engrossed. She realized that she loved the work and that she needed a better understanding of history to do it right. A lifelong secretary, Sanders wanted to go to college.

She earned her bachelor's degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, working part-time at the Kansas City Art Institute, mothering a teenage daughter.

$3 million from crude oil

Sarah Rector had struck oil. She was born into the Creek Indian Nation in 1902. A slave descendent, she received what was deemed the least desirable land when the Creek reached a land settlement with the United States government.

Someone miscalculated. Her land was saturated with crude oil. She eventually received $3 million for her interests. It made her the first black female millionaire in Kansas City, and the second in the nation.

She had moved to Kansas City, where she purchased a mansion. She bought three cars. One was a limousine. Rector hired a chauffeur.

She sent him to drive neighborhood children to Crispus Attucks Elementary near the historic 18th and Vine district.

Meanwhile, she raced around the city in either her Hupmobile or her silver-plated Lincoln. This was at a time when African-American women weren't a common sight behind the wheel.

Officers would stop her for speeding. Defiant, she would ask them, "Do you know who I am?"

In the end, she lost her money. She lost her high-flying friends. She sold the mansion.

Fortune had brought her millions. Gambling took it away. Her first husband, Homer Roberts, divorced her and moved to Chicago. Rector was near destitute, and she and her children moved back to Oklahoma for a time.

In 1967, she died.

Taste for fast cars

Sanders, while working on a school project before Reed died in 1999, had pulled Rector out of newspaper clippings. She pulled her out of the memories of people who knew of Rector. She found out about her European gowns and her taste for fast cars.

In graduate school at UMKC, her professors encouraged her to focus her studies on Rector. So Sanders threw herself into the books. She wrote paper after paper. She also worked full-time.

Years passed.

Rusty Restuccia, a Michigan writer and former Ford Motor Company executive, contacted Sanders and convinced her to add a chapter about Rector to his book focusing on Homer Roberts, the first African-American car dealer.

"She's a terrific story," Restuccia said of Rector and Sanders.

Sanders began making presentations about Rector. People began to re-enact Rector.

"It's not surprising," Sanders said. "Everyone from Kansas City older than me knew who she was."

Sanders woke up one morning, not even a month ago, and noticed something awry. There was her binder full of printouts on Rector. Her laptop with her final paper inside it. Her daughter was stirring in the house. Something was missing.

She put her finger on it: That listlessness had gotten up and left the house.

Sanders said she felt peace for the first time since Reed had died five years before.

Part of it was just time, she said. She had been the one driving the car on the road trips for five years, now. Part of it was finishing that master's degree.

But another part, a large part, was the process of resuscitating Rector.

"She could do whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted, however she wanted to do it," Sanders said. "I think that's why I was drawn to her."

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