(SOURCE: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York, New York. Researched and submitted to LWF Publications (Lest We Forget) by Mildred Franklin, Bronx, New York.)
Born in 1905 on a farm near Sterling, Kansas in the central part of the state, Kenneth Wiggins Porter’s scholarly interests were truly a product of his time and place. His parents had migrated to western Kansas - - his mother by covered wagon - - in the “sodhouse frontier days” of the mid 1880’s and he witnessed at close range changing patterns in Western life. He graduated from Sterling College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1926 and obtained his Master of Arts degree the following year from the University of Minnesota in history. Porter’s affiliation with Harvard University began in 1927 and he worked until he eventually received his doctoral degree in 1936, most likely in the field of business history.
Porter returned to Kansas as an Assistant Professor of history and political science at Southwestern College in Winfield, 1936-1938. Between 1938 and 1948 he advanced from instructor to Assistant Professor in history at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. He worked for the National Archives in Washington, D.C. during the summer of 1941 to 1943 and for the Business History Foundation in Texas, 1948-1955. It was during this period that he married Annette MacDonald (1946). For one year between 1951 and 1952 he was a Visiting Professor at the University of Oregon and in 1954 was a Fulbright lecturer in American history at Melbourne University in Australia. Between 1955 and 1958 Porter went from being a Visiting Professor to a Full Professor at the University of Illinois. He spent the greatest amount of time as Professor of history at the University of Oregon, 1958-1972. Upon his retirement he was a Visiting Professor at Arizona State University, Tempe between 1972 and 1973.
Porter’s scholarly interests were diverse and far reaching; having grown up in western Kansas, he early on became interested in frontier history, and was particularly intrigued with African-American frontiersmen and cowboys. His research in this subject culiminated in a book, The Negro on the American Frontier (Arno Press, 1971). His unpublished manuscript, “Black Riders: The Negro on the Frontier of the Cattle Country” is about a related topic. Among several other unpublished manuscripts he wrote are two about the interrelationship between Seminole Indians and African-Americans; “Freedom Over Me” focuses on the Seminole leader John Horse and Black Seminole Indians living in Florida, Mexico and Texas; and “Seminole: The Life of Wild Cat (Coacoochee).” As a business historian, he wrote three books: John Jacob Astor: Business Man (1931); The Jacksons and the Lees: Two Generations of Massachusetts Merchants, 1755-1844 (1937) and History of Humble Oil and Refining Company: A Study of Industrial Growth, with H.M. Larson (1959).
Porter was also interested in American folklore and folk history, particularly local Kansas history and certain aspects of American linguistics. While in Australia in 1954 he studied Australian folklore, especially the Australian “bush ballad.”
Politically, Porter was a Socialist and began to work for the Socialist Party in 1932. He was its presidential electoral candidate from the State of New York in both 1940 and 1944 and was elected to the state committee of the Labor Party as a Socialist, ca. 1944. He withdrew his membership from the Socialist Party in 1972 because he disagreed with the Socialist Part’s semi-official endorsement of the Democratic Party’s candidate George McGovern. Despite that he remained a member of the League for Industrial Democracy.
Another of Porter’s lifelong interests was poetry. He wrote three volumes of verse and also had poems published in newspapers and magazines. His subject matter varied from religious themes to the High Plains. He also wrote an article about Robert Frost and was a member of the New England Poetry Club.
Porter took an active interest in current events and frequently wrote letters to the editor of his local Oregon newspaper on a wide variety of subjects. Porter died in July 1981.
SCHOMBURG CENTER FOR RESEARCH IN BLACK CULTURE