44 years later, Tally's Corner is revealed

Elliot Liebow, the Washington-born anthropologist best known for his book
Elliot Liebow, the Washington-born anthropologist best known for his book "Tally's Corner: A Study of Negro Streetcorner Men." (Family Photo)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 26, 2011; 7:03 PM

In college, I read Elliot Liebow's classic book "Tally's Corner: A Study of Negro Streetcorner Men." Where exactly was the street corner that he wrote about?

- Christine Helms, Washington

According to many sources, it was Ninth and P streets NW. Except Answer Man happens to know it wasn't. We'll get to its true location in a moment, but first, have you read "Tally's Corner"?

Answer Man hadn't. It's a remarkable book, an academic work - it grew out of Liebow's doctoral thesis - that isn't dry or boring. It's an in-depth look at a group of men who routinely hung out on a Washington street corner in the early 1960s. These are poor men, flawed men, unemployed and underemployed men. But they are treated with respect. And although Liebow used pseudonyms, giving the men such names as Tally, Sea Cat, Richard and Leroy, they come across as flesh-and-blood individuals. When "Tally's Corner" was published in 1967, the New York Times called it "a valuable and even surprising triumph." The late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) called it "nothing short of brilliant."

The book explored the men's relationships with work, their wives and lovers, their children and one another. It came at a time when most research on black poverty focused on women and children, men being largely ignored. It's most captivating because of its detail, such as this snapshot describing a child-care arrangement: "Leroy bathed the children, braided the girls' hair, washed their clothes at 'the Bendix' (laundromat), played with them, and on their birthdays went shoplifting to get them gifts."

Liebow grew up in Washington, the son of a grocer. He dropped out of high school, joined the Marine Corps and served in the Pacific during World War II. He earned an English literature degree on the GI Bill, then a master's in ancient history before embarking on his PhD in anthropology at Catholic University. He and his wife, Harriet, spent a summer in northern Canada with the Swampy Cree Indians, where Elliot employed a technique known as participant observation - basically immersing himself in the culture and paying lots of attention - to understand the dynamics of village life.

When Liebow was hired to do research on black families in poverty, he knew how he was going to do it. Said Harriet: "He had a job convincing the folks at CU that this was a legitimate undertaking and that the technique of participant observation could be applicable within a group in our complex industrialized society. They were rather skeptical. I think he was probably one of the first to apply that method of research to populations within our own society."

Liebow picked a location that would be easy to get to from his office and his home in Brookland: 11th and M streets NW in Shaw, a corner that had a carryout, liquor store, dry cleaner and shoe-repair shop. This is the first time the exact location has been revealed. "I feel free to say that because it's no longer that street corner," Harriet told Answer Man. "The carryout's gone. That whole world is gone from that street corner."

Although the book was nearly universally acclaimed, there was some backlash. Said Harriet: "Responses like, 'How could a white man understand or know what was happening in the lives of these people?' Well, in some sense, none of us can ever understand each other. [But] you can develop an understanding if you're willing to watch what's going on."

Liebow was willing. He went to 11th and M nearly every day for 18 months. He accompanied the men to bars and parties. He went to court appearances and visited them in jail. "He never took notes while there but learned to come back and, as quickly as possible, jot down everything that happened," Harriet said.

Harriet has declined entreaties from journalists, anthropologists and sociologists to introduce them to the families Liebow wrote about, many of whom, sad to say, are still locked in a cycle of poverty and crime. "What Elliot saw was the world through his eyes," she said. "You've got to find your own world."

"Tally's Corner" remains in print, has been translated into multiple languages, and has sold more than a million copies, an amazing feat for an anthropological text. In the mid-1980s, Liebow learned he had cancer and was told he had a year to live. He chose to spend it volunteering at a Montgomery County soup kitchen. The doctors were wrong. Liebow lived 10 more years, time enough to finish his other major work, "Tell Them Who I Am: The Lives of Homeless Women."

Liebow died in 1994. His funeral was attended by people he had written about in both books. Over the decades, the observant anthropologist had kept in touch with the men of Tally's Corner.

Send your questions to answerman@washpost.com.

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