Panel Celebrates Late Sociology Professor’s Seminal Work

On October 19, 2017, GW’s sociology department will host a panel discussion to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the release of Tally’s Corner: A Study of Negro Streetcorner Men. Authored by the late Elliot Liebow, CCAS BA ’49, a renowned anthropologist, this seminal publication was based on Liebow’s recounting of his time “hanging out” with unemployed and under-employed men on the corner of 11th and M streets in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, D.C.

Liebow’s book, greeted with high acclaim by academia and the literary world alike, presented a raw, honest assessment of how the men on Tally’s Corner viewed almost every aspect of their lives. Liebow’s gift was his ability to immerse himself among the cultures he was studying: “I felt a real kinship to some of those guys,” Liebow said of the men on Tally’s Corner in the January 10, 1992 issue of the Washington City Paper, “and kinship in the sense that I really didn’t think there was that much difference between us.”

Perhaps Liebow was referencing a time of uncertainty in his own life. Having dropped out of school in 10th grade, Liebow only gained admittance to GW through a clerical error—and the kindness of an employee in the admissions department.

“Elliot had not completed high school, but there were special exceptions made for GIs who could take an entrance exam to qualify,” says Liebow’s widow, Harriet Liebow, GSEHD MA ’73. Apparently, this dispensation for GIs was limited to those who were missing only a few senior high school credits. “Elliot took the test, and when the registrar started to process his approval for entrance, she noticed for the first time he had not even completed 10th grade.” But because he performed so well on the test, the administrator waived the requirement, and he was admitted.

“There were some striking differences between the GW Elliot knew and the GW I was exposed to,” recalls Harriet. Elliot’s introduction to GW consisted of an assembly for incoming freshmen, many of whom were ex-GI’s and older than the usual freshman crowd. The president’s welcome speech referenced “the number of tuxedos” the men could expect to wear out as part of college life, which struck Harriet as not quite the right message for that audience.

But twenty-six years later, when Harriet matriculated at GW, stereotypes about college life had changed. “By the time I was dealing with the university,” she says, “they had received a federal grant to recruit Head Start aides from low-income neighborhoods into bachelor’s degree programs.” Harriet went on to complete her master’s in education and human development with a concentration in special education.

The Liebows’ daughter, Elisabeth Liebow, CCAS BA ’84, who studied elsewhere during her first two years of college and then lived abroad for a year, also attended GW. “When I returned to the U.S. to complete my undergraduate degree, I wanted to be in Washington, D.C., where my parents lived,” says Elisabeth. “I liked GW’s diverse, international student body, size, and urban setting, and since both of my parents had gone to GW, it was a natural fit.”

The department of sociology, guest speakers, and the GW community are looking forward to revisiting Tally’s Corner, a book that continues to offer insights into a group traditionally marginalized by society. The keynote lecture, “Tally’s Corner, 50 years later: Same Corner, Different Conditions, Different Corner, Same Conditions,” will be delivered by Georgetown University Professor Maurice Jackson.

Harriet, Elisabeth, and her other daughter, Jessica, plan to attend as a family. “I found him to be amazing,” says Harriet of her late husband. “After he passed away, I received a letter from one of Jessica’s friends from high school. What the friend recalled so well about [Elliot] was that he listened to her, a teenager. That’s what he was like.” After a moment’s pause, she adds: “I still miss him.”  —Mary Follin

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