Historian Benjamin Quarles is dead Morgan professor, 92, influenced direction of black studies

November 19, 1996|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,SUN STAFF

Benjamin A. Quarles, one of the country's foremost authorities on African-American history and a former history professor and department head at Morgan State University, died Saturday of a heart attack at Prince George's Hospital Center.

Dr. Quarles, 92, wrote eight books about black history, co-authored another and edited several others. He also wrote numerous articles that appeared in academic journals and periodicals, and more than 100 book reviews.

His flair for telling the story of African-American contributions to the nation's social and economic fabric carried his name far beyond the circles of academia.

Dr. Quarles' writings on abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and on blacks in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, were read by a generation of students and teachers. They continue today to influence chroniclers of early America.

Considered a pioneer in the field, he toiled during an era before many universities and high schools offered classes or programs in black history. He influenced the expansion and the direction of that field of study.

"I can say categorically and without fear of contradiction that Benjamin Quarles was one of the finest, most original historians of his generation," said John Hope Franklin, perhaps the leading scholar and author on black history.

"What he did was make black history accessible," said Eva Slezak, librarian in charge of the Enoch Pratt Library's African-American collection. She encountered Dr. Quarles at area meetings and lectures of historians. "He was just a very quiet, dignified person."

Much of what is known today about the life of the Maryland-born abolitionist Frederick Douglass emerged in Dr. Quarles' meticulous research, considered seminal by the scholars and biographers who have since followed the trail he blazed.

"We are beginning to see slavery, not from the view of the big house, but from the view of those in the slave quarters. Historians are now looking at the institutions and leadership that developed among black slaves," Dr. Quarles told The Sun in a 1976 interview. "These new studies are showing that you cannot go into any major aspect of American life without seeing definite evidence of a black contribution.

Roland C. McConnell, a retired history professor who was a colleague of Dr. Quarles' at Morgan, said, "His work spanned the entire course of African-American history. His biggest asset was his scholarly approach to the writing of history."

Dr. Quarles, who lived in Mitchellville in Prince George's County, came to Morgan in 1953 and worked there until 1974, serving as chairman of the History Department until 1967.

While at Morgan he was awarded the school's first "Teacher of the Year Award" and the "Distinguished Professor" honor from the state.

In 1988, the school dedicated The Benjamin A. Quarles Afro-American Studies Room in the school library as a repository for his books, manuscripts, plaques, awards, certificates and other memorabilia.

Pursuing truth

Dr. Earl S. Richardson, Morgan president, said Dr. Quarles unearthed "historical truth" that will never be forgotten.

"He became a legend in his own time, sincere, focused and diligent in his pursuit of the truth about the historical role of black Americans in the founding and building of our republic," Dr. Richardson said.

Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, a history professor who began teaching at Morgan during the end of Dr. Quarles' career, said he was one of the first historians to include women in their writings of history.

"He was a pioneer and he was my mentor," said Dr. Terborg-Penn, who still refers to some of his writings as reference material for research on black history.

Dr. Quarles' books include: "The Negro In The Civil War," "The Negro In The Making Of America," "Lincoln and the Negro" and his first book, the biography, "Frederick Douglass," published in 1948.

Friends and former colleagues said Dr. Quarles was respected for his decision to remain at Morgan despite many offers from larger institutions nationwide. "His decision was to remain at a black institution because that's where he wanted to be," Dr. Terborg-Penn said.

Born in Boston, Dr. Quarles graduated from Shaw University in North Carolina in 1931. He received his master's and doctoral degrees from the University of Wisconsin in 1933 and 1940.

His teaching career began in 1934 when he returned to Shaw University. From 1939 to 1953, he taught at Dillard University, then came to Morgan.

Although he stopped teaching at Morgan in 1974, Mr. Quarles was still a regular figure on the Northeast Baltimore campus until 1988, with his tall, slender figure -- usually adorned with a fedora -- often spotted going in and out of Soper Library.

Popular with students

"A lot of students didn't know who he was because he wasn't teaching at the time," said Sandra Mallory, a former Morgan student. "But those of us who knew would stop him and talk about history with him, and he'd always take time to talk."

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