Elliot Liebow (January 4, 1925–September 4, 1994) was an anthropologist best known as the author of Tally’s Corner: A Study of Negro Streetcorner Men (1967, Little, Brown and Co.) and Tell Them Who I Am: The Lives of Homeless Women (1993, Free Press).
The two books, written more than twenty-five years apart, rather neatly bookend Liebow’s career at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), over the course of which he rose to become Chief of the Center for the Study of Work and Mental Health. While Tally’s Corner—originally submitted as a Ph.D. dissertation to Catholic University’s Department of Anthropology—had grown out of research that Liebow conducted through the Health and Welfare Council of the National Capital Area on a grant from NIMH, Tell Them Who I Am punctuated the end of his career with the federal government. Liebow wound up writing Tell Them Who I Am after abruptly retiring on disability in 1984, having been diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer and given six or eight months to live. (See Biographical Note and the preface to Tell Them Who I Am for further details.) Happily, he lived for another decade after his diagnosis.
The symmetry of Liebow’s two books is underlined by the fact that both are examples of participant observation—a traditional anthropological approach which until Tally’s Corner had rarely been applied in a Western, urban setting. “In participant observation,” Liebow explains in the preface to Tell Them Who I Am, “the researcher tries to participate as fully as possible in the life of the people being studied” (p. vii). He goes on to poke fun at himself “Doing Research (that is, hanging around)” (p. x). Despite his modesty, Liebow’s ability to get close to his subjects is the stuff of legend. In his foreword to the 2003 edition of Tally’s Corner, Charles Lemert marvels at Liebow’s informality with Sea Cat: “Liebow “flopped” on the bed. When the condoms fell out, he felt no shame either in putting them away for Sea Cat or in asking about his use of them” (p. xi). Similarly, in her review of Tell Them Who I Am—which she calls “a work full of pathos and insight”—Katherine S. Newman of Columbia University’s Department of Anthropology writes: “Virtually every social scientist in the United States was raised on a diet that included Tally’s Corner. Elliot Liebow is the exemplar of the engaged ethnographer” (see Box 49, Folder 33).
The Liebow papers provide strong evidence of his research methods in participant observer studies. That said, the overwhelming majority of his copious field notes and tape recordings must be kept closed for the time being out of consideration for the privacy of his informants. Per the terms of the gift agreement signed by Harriet Liebow (Liebow’s widow), “field notes and related material, marked ‘confidential,’ […] shall be subject to a sixty (60) year restriction from the date of creation of said notes.” The finding aid indicates which materials are open for research and which are closed (and until when).
The first time I heard Liebow’s voice, I was surprised by how deep it was. I was listening to some tape recorded life history interviews with informants for Tell Them Who I Am (see Box 50), and I couldn’t help but be charmed by his parting words to one especially deferential interviewee: “You don’t have to call anybody anything but their first names,” he assured her, “[no] Miss Anybody […] and it’s just plain Elliot.” Tape recordings like that one offer some of the most vivid pictures of Liebow to be found anywhere in the papers; unfortunately, the collection contains very few photographs of him (and what few there are are rather poor quality). Because his role as participant observer seems so unavoidably personal, I found the lack of photographs both frustrating and tantalizing. While it’s true that he gives physical descriptions of himself in both of his books—6’1” tall, 185 pounds at the time of Tally’s Corner (p. 164) and ten pounds lighter, with white hair, by the time of Tell Them Who I Am (p. x)—these cursory accounts fall far short of capturing his charisma. In an obituary that appeared in the November 1994 issue of Anthropology Newsletter, Kim Hopper, the one-time president of the National Coalition for the Homeless, recalls Liebow’s incredible capacity to disarm (see Box 49, Folder 47):
Liebow was a consummate (some would say relentless) ethnographer and teacher. Two cardinal virtues of that dual profession—an ability to listen closely and a gift for storytelling—he held in abundance. Legend (confirmed) has it he once interviewed two men he had interrupted in the process of stealing the alternator from his parked car. (They desisted; “Give the man back his bolts!,” one of them reminded the other as they took their leave.) “It’s amazing what you can learn if you just don’t get excited,” was Liebow’s comment on the episode.
Perhaps the most lingering and impressive aspect of the Liebow papers is the documentation of his so-called retirement, during which, faced with his own imminent death, he steadfastly went on telling us who they are—tossing out stereotypes of the underclasses, just as he had in Tally’s Corner.
To learn more about the Elliot Liebow Papers, please see the newly published finding aid.
In his landmark 1990 scholarly work, The History of Black Catholics in the United States, Cyprian Davis presents a deeply researched history of African American Catholics in the United States. He proved that, while Black Catholics seemed invisible across U.S. Catholic history, in fact, the American Church has never been exclusively a white and European one. In fact, as he writes, “the African presence has influenced the Catholic church in every period of its history.” He concludes that for “[t]oo long have black Catholics been anonymous. It is clear they can be identified, that their presence has made an impact, and that their contributions have made Catholicism a unique and stronger body.” In that spirit, we offer an overview of some of our richest materials related to the Black Catholic experience in the United States, including the papers of Father Cyprian Davis himself.
In 2015, Special Collections acquired the papers of Father Cyprian Davis. Davis, born Clarence John Davis (1930-2015) in Washington, D.C., was a historian and archivist. A convert to Catholicism in his teenage years, Davis expressed an early interest in the priesthood. He joined the seminary of St. Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana, where he became a novice in 1950, and took the monastic name Cyprian in 1951. Ordained a priest on May 3, 1956, Davis became the first African American to join the monastic community of St. Meinrad.
He began his academic career in 1948, studying at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. where he received a Licentiate of Sacred Theology in 1957. Davis then studied church history abroad at The Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, where he obtained a licentiate in 1963. He taught church history at St. Meinrad before returning to Louvain for his doctorate degree in 1977. Father Davis authored and co-authored several pioneering monographs, including Christ’s image in Black: The Black Catholic community before the Civil War and The History of Black Catholics in the United States. Davis’s papers include many unpublished manuscripts on Black history and Black Catholic history, as well as correspondence, academic papers, printed material, audiovisual records, ephemera, and a range of awards and honors. A finding aid for the Cyprian Davis papers can be found here.
For insights into how white Catholics sought to promote interracial activities within the Catholic Church in the first half of the twentieth century, researchers can consult the records of the Catholic Interracial Council of New York (CICNY). Father John LaFarge, S.J., founded the CICNY in 1934 to promote mutual understanding and social justice among Blacks and whites. The CICNY disseminated information and held meetings and conferences on Catholic teaching and race. Through the 1940s, the CICNY addressed issues such as the Scottsboro Boys’ case, lynching, communism, and efforts to open the defense industry to Black workers. They also regularly honored Catholic civil rights activists with a number of annual awards and celebrations, including the annual John A. Hoey Interracial Justice Award. The idea of interracial councils led to their formation in Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C. By 1954, 24 Catholic Interracial Councils had been created.
The CICNY continued well into the 1990s, but had declined markedly in activity and importance by the late 1970s. The Interracial Review, of full set of which can be found in the voluminous CICNY Records, one of its more important undertakings since its founding, ceased publication in 1966, although it was revived in a much less ambitious format in the 1970s. Several civil rights leaders, including A. Philip Randolph and Roy Wilkins, contributed to the journal. A finding aid for the CICNY can be found here.
Washington, D.C.- Related Collections
The Haynes-Lofton Family Papers are comprised of the personal papers of Catholic University of America alumna Euphemia Lofton Haynes, her husband Harold Appo Haynes, and their families. A native Washingtonian, Euphemia Lofton Haynes (1890-1980) received a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from Smith College in 1914, a Master’s in Education from the University of Chicago in 1930, and a Doctorate in Mathematics from Catholic University in 1943, making her the first African American woman to receive a Ph.D. in Mathematics in the United States. She taught in the public schools of Washington, D.C. for 47 years and was the first woman to chair the D.C. School Board. She figured prominently in the integration of both the D.C. public schools and the Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women. The papers consist of correspondence, financial records, publications, speeches, reports, newspaper clippings, and photographs, and provide a record of her family, professional, and social life, including her involvement in education, civic affairs, real estate, and business matters in Washington. A finding aid for the Haynes-Lofton family papers can be found here.
Educator and activist Paul Philips Cooke (1917-2010), a member of Washington D.C.’s Sacred Heart parish, lived most of his long life in the District. After earning a Master’s in English Literature from The Catholic University of America in 1942, and a Doctorate in Education from Columbia University in 1947, Cooke taught and served as president of the District of Columbia Teachers College until 1974. He was an active member of the Catholic Interracial Council of the District of Columbia (CIC DC) for over 50 years. The collection includes correspondence, clippings, reports, meeting minutes, photos, pamphlets, and publications. A finding aid for the Paul Philips Cooke papers can be found here.
For more on African American life in Washington, D.C. in the second half of the twentieth century, researchers may also consult the Elliot Liebow Papers. Liebow (1925–1994) was an American anthropologist, best known for his 1967 book Tally’s Corner: A Study of Negro Streetcorner Men, a study of Black men in urban Washington, D.C. The book, based on his 1966 Catholic University of America Department of Anthropology doctoral dissertation “Behavior and Values of Streetcorner Negro Men” sold nearly a million copies, and though dated today in its methodology, was influential in its time. Beginning in 1990, he held the Patrick Cardinal O’Boyle Professorship at the National Catholic School for Social Service of the Catholic University of America. He died in 1994. Series 3 of the Liebow papers contains research material related to Tally’s Corner. Although some of the research material is subject to a 60-year restriction in order to protect the identities of the case study participants, the open material includes the original manuscript of Tally’s Corner, correspondence about the book, book reviews, and publicity material (e.g., ads and ephemera). A finding aid for the Liebow papers is currently underway and should be completed by early 2021. In the meantime, please contact the archives staff directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-319-5065 for more information.
Education Resource Websites
The Thomas Wyatt Turner and The Federated Colored Catholics website is one of our most well-used educational resources. The site revolves around Turner’s struggle to promote racial equality in the U.S. Catholic Church. In that struggle, we see how even people of good faith have often disagreed over the best strategies for winning the battle. Some have argued that African-Americans or other racial minorities have needed the chance to unite, gain power, and win respect from white majorities. Others have contended that convincing white, and indeed all Americans, to be colorblind—to not “see” race—has been the best plan. Such disagreements emerged among American Catholics in the 1920s and 1930s in debates between Dr. Thomas Wyatt Turner, an African-American layman, and Father John LaFarge, a white Jesuit and long time civil rights advocate.The Thomas Wyatt Turner and the Federated Colored Catholics website can be found here.
The Catholic Church, Bishops and Race in the Mid-Twentieth Century website features resources and documents related to the U.S. Catholic Bishops in the mid-twentieth century. While battles were waged against racist institutions in America in the decades prior, it was the 1940s–1960s that set the tone for the momentous changes in the history of African Americans. Often termed the “Second American Revolution,” the Civil Rights Movement of those decades sought the end of segregation across a wide swath of American society, including schools and other public organizations. The Catholic Church in the U.S. saw the struggle for equality within its own walls, and many church leaders were determined to not only free their institutions from segregation, but to work for its demise in the general population as well. While recognition of the Church’s work in civil rights has paled in comparison to the luminaries of the movement, several individuals and organizations made a mark nonetheless, overcoming resistance at times from within their own parishes and institutions.The website can be found here.
In the 1930s and 1940s, comic books were one of the most popular forms of entertainment among the nation’s youth, combining as they did narratives, graphics, and low prices. Concerned over the possibility of the effects of such entertainment on the moral character of young people, the Commission on American Citizenship at The Catholic University of America worked with George A. Pflaum of Dayton, Ohio, to publishing a bi-monthly comic book, the Treasure Chest of Fun & Fact for distribution in Catholic Parochial Schools starting in 1946. The Treasure Chest was intended as a remedy to the sensationalism of traditional comics: it contained educational features, narrated the lives of saints, and presented adventure stories featuring realistic characters with what were considered wholesome values, like patriotism, equality, faith, and anti-communism.
By the early 1960s, the Treasure Chest was at the height of its popularity. In 1964, Joe Sinnott, the illustrator of Marvel Comics’ “The Fantastic Four,” teamed up with writer Berry Reece to produce a story depicting a U.S. presidential election. It was set in the future: the presidential election was supposedly that of 1976, the year of the nation’s bicentennial. “Pettigrew for President” lasted for 10 issues, following the campaign trail of the fictional Tim Pettigrew from the announcement of his candidacy through the national convention of his party. The candidate’s face was carefully hidden in every panel, until the final page of the final issue of the story, when Pettigrew is finally revealed: the first Black candidate for president of the United States! This site reproduces the entire “Pettigrew for President” series in a digital format. It places this unique comic book story in the context of the 1960s civil rights movement, and provides background information on the creators of the series. The website can be found here.
Guest blogger, Dr. Cecilia Moore, is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Dayton and faculty member of the Degree Program for the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana. Dr. Moore with Dr. C. Vanessa White of the Catholic Theological Union and Fr. Paul Marshall, S.M., Rector of the University Dayton, co-edited Songs of Our Hearts and Meditations of Our Souls: Prayers for Black Catholics, St. Anthony Messenger Press (2006).
In August 2015, Dr. Kathleen Dorsey Bellow, Father Kenneth Taylor, and I spent four days in the basement of the Saint Meinrad Seminary Library. We were there to sort, curate, and pack more than 40 years of archives documenting the lives of black Catholics in the United States that Father Cyprian Davis, O.S.B. saved. When we made the plans to do this work, we expected that Father Cyprian would be working alongside us, but he had died that May. Graciously and generously, Archabbot Justin Duvall, O.S.B. allowed us to go forward with the plan and agreed to cover the shipping costs. By the time we finished, Father Taylor had a van full of boxes containing the archives of the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus (NBCCC) to be donated to the Archives of the University of Notre Dame. There were also boxes of documents destined for the Archives of Xavier University of Louisiana for the Institute for Black Catholic Studies (IBCS) Collection and for the Black Catholic Theological Symposium (BCTS) Collection, a small collection of documents for the Archives of the University of St. Thomas for the National Office of Black Catholics Collection, and a very large of pile of boxes containing documents, ephemera, papers, books, and material culture, that are now the Cyprian Davis, O.S.B. Papers of the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives, part of Special Collections at the Catholic University of America.
How and why we came to do this work started a year earlier when Dr. Bellow and I visited Father Cyprian at Saint Meinrad in July 2014. We both had studied with him at the IBCS and later became his colleagues as we joined the IBCS faculty and then served as IBCS administrators. Over our years working together at the IBCS, we became friends with Fr. Cyprian, but it had been while since we had enjoyed his fine company in person.
During our visit, Fr. Cyprian hosted us for refreshments and conversation in his spacious and comfortable office. It was filled with books, journals, works-in-progress, photographs of family and friends, and art. It was the place where he wrote class lectures, homilies, articles, talks, and of course, The History of Black Catholics in the United States. It was also where he engaged in his love of reading and conversation. We had the best time with him. Among the many things we discussed were his work revising The History of Black Catholics in the United States, politics, movies, books, and the need to find permanent homes for the NBCCC and BCTS archives which he had served as archivist for since 1968 and 1978 respectively. These archives were held in a storage room in the basement of the Saint Meinrad Seminary Library. When we volunteered to help him complete this mission, Father Cyprian gladly accepted our offer.
We returned to St. Meinrad in December 2014 to assess the work we needed to do. At that time, Father Cyprian took us to the storage room and we got our first look at the historical treasures he had saved over the past 46 years. And, he had saved quite a lot. A wall of deep shelves was loaded with large and small boxes of formal documents, letters, magazines, newsletters, bulletins, memos, conference programs, newspaper articles, books, tapes, films, photographs, event programs, manuscripts, notes, cards, etc. It was amazing. We spent hours taking boxes down and looking at their contents with Father Cyprian. What a trip down “memory lane.” We knew many of the people attached to or responsible for the history that we held in our hands. Many of the women and men at the heart of the contents of these archives had died, so we spent time remembering them, what made them fit for the battles they fought on behalf of black Catholics, and the personal qualities that made them so memorable and missed. Others were still living, and we had a good time looking at their younger selves and discussing how their ministries in the black Catholic community had changed over the years in emphasis, intensity, and status. As we did this preliminary assessment, it became clear that there was a lot in the Saint Meinrad Library storage room that did not properly belong to the NBCCC, the BCTS, or the IBCS.
There was a fourth archives that was hard to define because it was so eclectic. It contained things that Father Cyprian had either written or helped to write and edit. It documented the people and the places that over the past 50 years that had called on Father Cyprian to “tell” them their history. Letters and cards revealed the vast network of people, from many different backgrounds, who reached out to him – to send him things that they thought were important to black Catholic history that he could use to write more of the history, to seek his advice about their work on black Catholic history, to tell him how much his work meant to them, their students, and their parishes, or to challenge him on points of the history he had written. There were also dissertations, theses, conference papers, and articles written by people who were directly inspired to pursue research in black Catholic history by Father Cyprian. By the end of the day, it was clear that Father Cyprian had an archives that needed a permanent home too.
When we suggested this to him, he demurred at first, but after thinking about it for a while he agreed with us and told us that he wanted his papers to be donated to the Catholic University of America. He was happy that this trove of primary and secondary sources would assist future generations of historians committed to black Catholic history to continue researching, writing, and teaching an-ever more contextualized and rich history of Catholics of African descent in the United States.
It’s African American History Month, and we’ve got all kinds of African-American history here at The Catholic University of America.
In fact, you’re standing on it. The original 65 acres purchased by the U.S. Catholic Bishops to found the University is rife with African American history. It didn’t start out that way. Initially, the first house built on the current CUA campus was built by Samuel Harrison Smith and Margaret Bayard Smith. The Smiths were invited to settle in the young capital city in 1803 by President Thomas Jefferson and found the District’s first newspaper. Later, the house passed on to James Middleton and his son Erasmus Middleton. The Middleton family held it as a slave-run plantation, until the Emancipation Act of 1862 (the first emancipation act in the nation, by the way) liberated the slaves of Washington, D.C. The house eventually became part of the CUA campus and was demolished in 1970.