Family reunions play an important role in the Black community, so it was fitting that the University of Michigan Program for Research on Black Americans called its June 20 event a family reunion rather than an academic conference. In fact, it was a bit of both.
Established in 1976 at the U-M Institute for Social Research, the Program was one of the nation’s first university-based research and training programs to focus on the real-life needs of the Black community, with ideas developed in collaboration with that community and studies conducted by and for Black Americans.
Alumni from around the country and the world have stayed in touch with each for nearly 40 years now. Like many families, they shared laughter and tears at the gathering, as well as memories, accomplishments and dreams for the future.
“This is such a happy event,” said U-M psychologist emerita Patricia Gurin. She and her husband, psychologist emeritus Gerald Gurin, mentored a young assistant professor named James S. Jackson, whose vision, drive and “perennial optimism,” in the words of one colleague, made the Program happen.
“It’s amazing to see all the people who are here,” said Jackson, now Director of ISR. “When I arrived at Michigan in 1971, I was the new kid on the block. If Gerry and Pat Gurin hadn’t taken me under their wings, there’s no way we could have done what we did.”
What they did was to conduct the first-ever rigorously scientific, nationally representative, non-comparative survey of Black Americans, at a time when the nation was finally starting to come to terms with the legacy of slavery and the needs and demands of a population that had been oppressed and excluded for too long.
“It really was radical, to survey Blacks without including whites as a control group,” said Belinda Tucker, a social psychologist and professor at UCLA, who was Jackson’s first dissertation student at Michigan. “You couldn’t even get a journal article published back then unless you included a comparison with whites.”
Once the National Institutes of Health funded the survey, Jackson and colleagues faced a major sampling problem that stumped ISR’s survey research establishment: how to find the Black population in areas of low population density like Wyoming. “And I swear, the solution came to me in a dream,” said Jackson, laughing. “Ask white people! They know exactly where the Blacks are.” Thus was born the Wide Area Sampling Procedure, WASP, now used all around the world to sample small, highly visible populations who are widely dispersed.
Jackson and others involved in that first survey spoke about the trials and tribulations of the early days, from all-night sessions preparing the proposal using an IBM correctable Selectric typewriter to getting shot while doing some pre-testing near Chicago’s Cabrini Green. Panelists included U-M colleagues Gerald Gurin, Phillip Bowman, Letha Chadiha and Wayne McCullough and colleagues Ronald Brown with Wayne State University and Susan Mosley-Howard of Miami University.
They also remembered colleagues who had passed – Jerome Strong and Paul Timmer – and one – Shirley Hatchett — who could not be with them in Ann Arbor because of her health.
Other panels throughout the day focused on subsequent surveys of the Black population the group conducted, including the National Survey of American Life, which included the first national survey of the Afro-Caribbean population, and on advances in knowledge the surveys made possible, about subjects ranging from family life, religion, poverty, mental health and psychiatric disorders to help-seeking behavior, adolescence and aging among African Americans.
Among those presenting were Harvard University’s David Williams, University of the West Indies researcher Ishtar Govia, University of Southern California’s Karen Lincoln, Wayne State University’s R. Khari Brown and U-M researchers Linda Chatters, Woody Neighbors, Cleopatra Caldwell, and Robert Joseph Taylor.
Throughout the event, the reflections were personal as well as professional, with attendees sharing how their involvement with each other extended beyond the conduct of research to the ways they raised their children and the ways they still strive to extend the opportunities they were given to young people of color in the academy today.
“In lifecourse development, we talk about linked lives,” said Chadiha,“ and in this group, our lives really are linked, through this Program.”