New book by Tonya Bolden – Searching for Sarah Rector

searching for sarah rector

New book for late-intermediate and middle grade students – Searching for Sarah Rector: The Richest Black Girl in America (Bolden, 2014). Let me start by saying that Tonya Bolden has become a “go to” author for me; her research is meticulous, thorough and her writing is appropriate for her audience with rigorous and rich content. I was surprised by this book, though. From reading summaries, I thought I was in for an adventure. Maybe an adventure akin to The Impossible Rescue (Sandler, 2012) or Chasing Lincoln’s Killer (Swanson, 2009). But this book is not a “can’t-put-it-down” adventure. Instead Bolden, uses Sarah Rector’s story as a frame for bringing to life the political and legal experiences of African Americans born and/or living in the Indian Territory and the state of Oklahoma as the culture of community-shared-land shifted to individuals owning land. Sarah Rector, a “Creek freedman” and, therefore, a citizen of an Indian nation, was eligible at birth to be allotted a piece of land. Her parents pursued this and then, through a lease to an oil driller, Sarah became very rich. Except that African American parents were not trusted by the government to be guardians of their children’s estates; generally, a white man had to be assigned. Except that many of these guardians were crooked. Except that…

A central theme in this book is how misunderstandings lead to unfair judgments or distorted views – in many arenas including those of journalists for The Defender in Chicago as well as lawyers for the NAACP in NYC as well as the judgment the author, Bolden, made about what kind of guardian Sarah had been assigned until she dug further into the primary sources available.

This is a case study in the limitations of what we know – in the present and regarding the past. There are actually no primary sources that provide insight into Sarah’s actual thoughts. There are only court documents, other legal documents like land ownership papers, newspaper snippets, a few photographs and so forth. Bolden notes how she aquired a lot of information through a “Dawes Packets” – files of information “tied to an application for a land allotment in Indian Territory, which includes a birth affidavit, census cards, and often testimony” (p. 58). The layout and design of the book integrates a lot of primary sources – including sources like photographs of cabins in the same place and time Bolden used to infer what might have been Sarah’s living conditions. Because Sarah’s personal voice (through journals or interviews) is not present in the primary sources, we only get to know her from a distance; this was an unpleasant surprise for me, but I adjusted.

The power of the author’s work is in Bolden’s perspective – she can only write what she has interpreted from primary sources, many times very dry ones 🙂 If you are working with a savvy group of readers/writers, I’d share this book with them as a mentor for doing their own research. Reading excerpts from this text might be beneficial to all (5-9th grade) students engaging in research, in reading, in writing – including the author’s notes (p. 51) about her research and about the care we have to take when consulting primary sources (that may present distorted pictures of what happened).

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