illustration of young black girl in front of oil rig

'The Richest Black Girl in America:' Professor's article acquired for film

February 9, 2022


Professor Lauren Henley’s article, “The Richest Black Girl in America,” about a young Black girl’s struggle to retain her sudden wealth against constant threats in the early 1900s, has caught the attention of two Hollywood players.

Azia Squire, a writer for the Netflix show “Bridgerton,” as well as Universal and Disney, will adapt Henley’s article with plans to turn it into a feature script for Amblin Partners, according to Henley and published reports. Amblin Partners, which acquired the rights to the story, is Steven Spielberg’s film and production company.

Henley, an assistant professor in leadership studies, wrote her article for the Truly*Adventurous digital storytelling website. 

Published in February 2021 on the online platform Medium, Henley’s article describes the harsh, poverty-stricken conditions that 11-year-old Sarah Rector and her family endured in Jim Crow Oklahoma.

Rector was the daughter of Black farmers with little hope of a future beyond the fields that they worked from sun up until sun down.

The Rector’s ancestors had been enslaved by the Creek tribe in Oklahoma. Because of this, the family was allotted free land by the federal government as a form of reparations. The family’s luck changed in 1913, when land that had been set aside for Sarah suddenly began gushing oil, after Rector’s father leased it to a drilling company.

Henley writes: 

Without knowing it yet, Sarah Rector in that instant had gone from poor farmers’ daughter to a budding tycoon. 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. From that first gusher alone Sarah stood to make more than $114,000 per year — nearly $3 million in today’s dollars.

Henley, who came to the University of Richmond two years ago, is a historian whose research examines youthfulness, race, gender, religion, and crime in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She grew up reading books about “little Black girls who weren’t bad or being stereotyped,” she said. However, her current work considers how Black women and girls became both the victims of and perpetrators of violent crimes in the rural industrial South.

Truly*Adventurous reached out to Henley, asking about her interest in writing about Rector’s little-known story. Henley agreed, and in between moving from Austin, Texas, back to her hometown in Richmond, she poured through 5,000 pages of records to build her story around the main characters, parents, siblings, and guardians of Rector’s funds.

Court records, handwritten accounts, and simple copies of transactions to repair Rector’s car provided context and depth to the story. Henley’s story was published on Medium in February 2021. 

Henley was ecstatic when Amblin secured her story. She believes that when and if a film is made, Squire will not tell Rector’s story from a “white savior’s” point of view. Rector, often besieged by people — Black and white — who were determined to take her money, knew her power, Henley said. Once grown and educated at some of America’s best schools for Blacks, she also knew how to control her own destiny.