Robert Joseph Taylor and Karen Lincoln Tell their Stories in PRBA Black History Month Talks

March 6, 2023

Contact: Tevah Platt ([email protected])

ANN ARBOR– The Program for Research on Black Americans (PRBA) was established in 1976 at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research by an interdisciplinary team of social scientists and graduate students who wanted to “give a voice” to “a heretofore largely voiceless Black America.” A research program housed in the Research Center for Group Dynamics, PRBA has led the innovation of new qualitative and quantitative research methods to understand the lives of African American and African descendent communities.

In observance of Black History Month, PRBA hosted two online seminars in February 2023, with one talk by PRBA Director Robert Joseph Taylor, and another from PRBA alumna Karen Lincoln of UC Irvine, who was a graduate student with PRBA while completing U-M’s joint doctoral program in Social Work and Sociology.

Taylor, who is the Harold R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Social Work and the Sheila Feld Collegiate Professor of Social Work at the University of Michigan, spoke on “Civil Rights: Segregation and Family.” Watch Taylor’s talk:

Lincoln– Professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, Program in Public Health and the Director of the Center for Environmental Health Disparities Research at UC Irvine– is an academic, advocate, and public scholar whose work highlights the societal and social factors that contribute to health disparities. She spoke about her life and work in “The Making of a Mental Health Scholar.” Watch Lincoln’s talk:

A striking characteristic of both talks was the way in which each of them wove together three strands– history, scholarship, and personal experience.

Lincoln’s narrative described her life’s journey– from days going to school hungry at El Cerrito (Calif.) High School– saving $1 a day in lunch money for 55 days to pay the fee to take the SAT– through her rise to being named among the world’s top 2% of cited scientists. Taylor, who is known for his research on older Black Americans, presented slides interspersing images of his family and life growing up in the segregated South with broader historic events and stories of leaders of the Civil Rights Movement in Nashville, Tennessee. He covered the roles of James Lawson, Diane Nash, John Lewis, civil rights attorney Z. Alexander Looby, Martin Luther King, and other Civil Rights leaders, as well as the experiences of Vanderbilt’s Walter Murray and Perry Wallace, who integrated SEC basketball.

In a notable parallel, both scholars included Google maps in their presentations pointing to specific houses they had lived in and their proximity to larger events that took place nearby. Lincoln’s map showed her Keller Plaza home in North Oakland, and its proximity to the Lois the Pie Queen restaurant where the local Cartel-affiliated cocaine kingpin Rudy Henderson was shot and killed in 2006. Taylor pointed out his family home, where he awoke from the blast of the nearby bombing of the home of Z. Alexander Looby on April 15, 1960.


Map of Lincoln’s Keller Plaza home in North Oakland.

Map of Lincoln’s Keller Plaza home in North Oakland.

Map of Taylor's family home in Nashville, Tennessee.

Map of Taylor’s family home in Nashville, Tennessee.

By presenting such personal narratives, both scholars gave their audiences the opportunity to understand not only the speakers’ challenges and successes but the way in which their life experiences framed their scholarship. For example, Lincoln explicitly spoke on how her late father’s health conditions encouraged her to engage in public scholarship around disease prevention and the chronic health conditions of older African Americans. Taylor’s storytelling detailed the violence of Jim Crow to show “the bravery of the common everyday people during this period.”

“I think it was really important for all of us [at PRBA] to bring our different perspectives and experiences and tell all of our stories, which got woven into the work that we did,” Lincoln said. “And so I’m very proud of my background and how I grew up, and how I was able to use all of those experiences to frame the problems and how I ask questions and how I approach problems. Being at PRBA, I think we all came together and we added all of our lived experiences and it was very interdisciplinary, not just by field or discipline, but how we lived our lives.”

For further reading, the following select publications were co-authored by Taylor, Lincoln, and others, including PRBA’s Linda Chatters and PRBA Founder James S. Jackson.

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