Local Students Receive Scholarships, Carry On Legacy of Opelika’s First African American Doctor

By Wil Crews

Members of the J.W Darden Foundation gathered at the J.W Darden House in Opelika last week to honor two Opelika High School graduates who are carrying on the legacy of Dr. J.W. Darden, Opelika’s first African American doctor.

“We started giving the scholarship as a way to pay tribute to Dr. Darden and also all of our instructors, administrators and our experiences there [J.W. Darden High School],” said Elaine Burton, president of the J.W. Darden High School Alumni Association. “As our fellowship grew in getting together for the reunion, we realized we needed to do more in order to pay tribute … it was all about education. What better way to pay it forward than recognizing young people from our area?”


Benet Harris and Taylor Smith were selected out of 15 applicants to be honored by the foundation through the presentation of scholarships for their outstanding academic record, philanthropic efforts and ambitions to service communities through their education.

“They are just so extraordinary,” Burton said.

Harris graduated Opelika High School with a 4.34 GPA and plans to attend Georgia Tech this fall to pursue a degree in chemical and biomolecular engineering.

“I love math and science, so I wanted to go into engineering,” Harris said. “Since the pandemic, chemical engineers, pharmacists, everybody has worked together for the vaccine, and I feel like it’s something that I’m interested in.”

During her time at OHS, Harris was a member of the Student Government Association (treasurer in 2020), the French Club, the Anchor Club, the cheer team, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, show choir, Key Club, FBLA, FCCLA, the Guidance Advisory Committee and was class president from 2017-20.

She said she is honored to receive the scholarship in the name of J.W. Darden and wants to continue his legacy through her own work.

“It’s inspiring,” Harris said. “He did set goals – he achieved them – like I plan to do for myself. You look around and see how far he’s come. Me personally, you will see how far I’ve come by the time I graduate Georgia Teach and I feel like the scholarship will help me achieve my goals.”

Harris earned many honors and distinctions during her time as a Bulldog, including: being a member of the National Honor Society, Lee County Young Leaders, Rho Kappa National Honor Society, French Honor Society, Science National Honor Society, Mu Alpha Theta Honor Society and Homecoming Court, as well attending the National Youth Leadership Forum for Engineering in 2020 and more.

She has also been involved in community service projects for numerous organizations, including: Delta Gems, Church Youth Workers, Habitat for Humanity, East Alabama Food Bank, Lee County Youth Development Center and Southern Showcases.

Harris has also completed AP courses in US History, Physics and Biology, and her personal interest include baking, math and drawing.

“I’ve watched Benet grow up … she has such a willing heart,” Burton said of Harris. “She’s intelligent, and she has strived to exemplify that in everything she does. Through her community service, through her interactions with people generally, she’s always gracious and sweet. And then to find out what her goals are. I’m just so thrilled it seems what her future holds.”

Smith graduated Opelika High School with a 4.0 GPA and is planning to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C. in the fall in pursuit of a political science degree.

“Being a lawyer is a dream of mine,” he said.

During his time at Opelika, Smith earned inductions into the National Honor Society, the Science National Honor Society, the National Technical Honor Society, Mu Alpha Theta, the Student Government Association at OHS, Key Club, FBLA, Pho Kappa and Anchor Club.

He spoke on the honor of receiving a scholarship from the foundation and how unique it is for he and Harris to share the acknowledgement together.

“It’s cool because you know, we have been friends since middle school, so to kind of still be beside her [Harris] is cool,” Smith said. “Going into law, – to give African Americans fair and equal treatment – that’s kind of something I’m trying to do. To get this scholarship, it kind of goes hand in hand. There is pressure to succeed, getting such a scholarship, but I’m okay with the pressure.”

Smith has also worked as an extended day instructor at Northside Elementary School, been a member of the Church Choir Cabinet and the Opelika City School Advisory Committee and completed AP courses in US History and Biology. His personal interests include football, show choir and playing the piano and saxophone.

“Taylor is special too,” Burton said. “He too has been involved in community service. Both of them will be in new cultures, city life instead of our beautiful, sweet, sleepy Opelika. But we are excited for that. What they have inside, its more than their intellect. So I just think all of that is important, how they are willing to serve their community as well as do stuff in the books.”

Ultimately, with these scholarships, the foundation hopes to establish a lineage of giving back to the deserving youth of Opelika and surrounding communities.

“It’s important because, we hope that we are building something,” Burton said. “We are a finite organization … so we are trying to do something that will encourage our children and even grandchildren to hopefully keep some of this going.”