Sean and lawyer Brian Kramer, November 2009
Sean and lawyer Brian Kramer, November 2009.
Chances are, Sean Sessums Means is now the wealthiest Staples clerk in America. All told, he says, he was granted a settlement from the Trust that should be worth several million dollars over the course of his life, although he won't divulge the exact details, including the sum he has received so far. It's what he believes James B. Duke would have wished. Sean confirms that he has been paid everything he was owed from birth and then some, more than adequately compensating him for all the years he'd been unaccounted for. And 21 years after the death of the last descendant named in the original indenture (three are still alive), the assets of the Trust will be divided equally among all surviving beneficiaries, which will mean another big payment for Sean. The important part, though, "is knowing that I'm recognized, that I'm a beneficiary, that this is my heritage, that this is where I came from. It's for real," says Sean, "and no, I'm not bullshitting."

For his part, Jack Means feels some bitterness. "If it weren't for Karen, Sean would have had his money long ago—I didn't want her taking everything from him," he says. Then Jack adds, "I love Sean. The only good thing to come out of this is my relationship with him." And yet… "We haven't really talked much lately," says Sean. "I was calling him a lot when we came back from Arizona, and I thought he was gonna call me, but he really hasn't." Sean pauses. "He's a hard guy to read."

Sean's grandmother Marion died of cancer last April, although not before hearing from Jack that Sean had grown into a fine young man. "She was glad about that," says her fourth husband, Charles Fish. "I think at the end of her life she felt remorse about what had happened." But Sean wonders about other Duke relatives, and whether they'll accept him into the family. "I think of myself as a person of color, but we all breathe the same air, bleed the same color blood, live under the same sun," he says, with characteristic optimism. Even the tumult of his childhood compels him to look on the bright side. "There was a lot of violence in my early life, but there was also love," Sean says, almost defiantly. "My mother loved my father and I know my father loved us."

Sean doesn't yet have elaborate plans for his windfall. "I'm just trying to figure out what to do," he says. "I don't want to be one of those guys who gets a lot of money and then blows it and ends up back where he was." He and a friend are working on a comic book that they hope to debut at Comic-Con, the comic book convention held annually in San Diego. And he and Brian talk about maybe starting a nonprofit for kids growing up in single-parent homes.

For now, Sean is happy to stay on at Staples. "I kind of like working here—I like the people I work with," he says, despite the fact that he frequently has to get up at 3 a.m. for the early shift. Only recently he found a dozen pallets on the loading dock, with no one around to help him unload them. Another day at work. The only difference? He'd shown up in a brand-new V8 Camaro with a red jewel tintcoat and heated leather seats.

"Being a Duke," Sean says, "does have some privileges."

Looking for another good read? Check out the amazing story of Henrietta Lacks


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