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Legacy of Opportunity: Woodford R. Porter Sr. Scholarship turns 25

by Kevin Hyde, special to UofL Today last modified Apr 08, 2010 05:52 PM

The late Woodford R. Porter Sr. was honored in several ways throughout his 87-year life.

Legacy of Opportunity: Woodford R. Porter Sr. Scholarship turns 25

Woodford R. Porter

But the one honor he was most proud of came in 1984 when the University of Louisville Board of Trustees created the Woodford R. Porter Scholarship for minority students.

The Society of Porter Scholars will celebrate the scholarship's silver anniversary April 9 at the Mellwood Arts and Entertainment Center with the Porter Ball 2010: a Celebration of 25 Years of Scholarship. Over the past two and a half decades, the Porter Society has grown into UofL's largest African American scholarship organization -- built on its foundational four pillars of heritage, scholarship, leadership and service throughout the university and community.

"The scholarship and legacy of our father continues to give our family a sense of fulfillment because we continue to be involved with the scholars," said Woodford Porter's daughter Marie Porter. "We feel it's important to continue to articulate the values that our father and mother [Harriett Porter] felt were so important."

Each year UofL awards the Porter Scholarship to promising African American undergraduate students. The Society of Porter Scholars provides academic and social support to recipients, promoting interaction and enhancing leadership opportunities, while developing and encouraging professional and graduate education.

It all follows in the tradition of the scholarships namesake.

Woodford R. Porter Sr., who died in 2006, was the patriarch of one of Louisville's most prominent African American families and owner of A.D. Porter and Sons Inc., funeral home, the area's longest-operating, privately held African American funeral home. As a young man, he grew up on Louisville's west end where he experienced racial segregation firsthand.

But that didn't stop him from becoming a leader in the city's civic, business and education communities. In 1958 Porter became the first African American to serve on the old Louisville school board. He was appointed to UofL's Board of Trustees in 1968, putting him in the somewhat strange position of being a leader at a university that did not allow him to enroll when he graduated from Louisville's Central High School in 1936. At that time, UofL  was not yet integrated.

Porter was the first African American on the UofL Board of Trustees and was a key player during the school's transition from tht of a semi-private municipal university to a full-fledged state university.

In 24 years as a UofL trustee -- he retired from the board in 1991 -- Porter served four terms as chairman and was a major player in persuading Kentucky's higher education council to designate UofL as Kentucky's "major urban university."

The university developed a "Minority Retention Plan" in the early 1980s when the courts found Kentucky to be in violation of the law by maintaining vestiges of segregation in its higher education system. The UofL Board of Trustees developed and established the Woodford R. Porter scholarship program in 1985 as part of that retention plan, with 50 students who were selected by a committee.

Since then, thousands of UofL students have benefitted from the Porter Scholarship, including Tomarra Adams, a 1996 psychology graduate who went on to earn her master's and doctorate degrees in social work at UofL.

"Opportunity" is the one-word answer she gives when asked what the scholarship meant to her.

"Although I wasn't aware of the legacy of Woodford Porter when I came to UofL, I am honored to be one of the thousands who have represented everything that was envisioned for the scholarship program," said Adams, who now is assistant dean of advising and student services in the UofL College of Arts and Sciences and an assistant professor of Pan-African studies. "Without it, I would never had been able to pursue my undergraduate degree here at UofL and I can't even imagine how my life would be different without having this as my foundation."

For Nichole M. Burruss, who works in UofL's Honors Program, the Society of Porter Scholars became her UofL family. She was "humbled," she said, by the efforts of the African American students who had come before her, and wanted "to epitomize" the values of the society and to make the scholarship's namesake proud.

"Going to the University of Louisville on a Porter scholarship was an invaluable life experience for me; one in which I matured from a curious teen to mature young adult," Burruss said. "And I have the society's advising staff and my Porter peers to thank for helping shape me into the person I have become."

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