A scholar, a writer, a gentleman Historian: Benjamin Quarles, who died this month, helped make black history a legitimate academic field and enriched the story of the founding and growth of the United States.

November 24, 1996|By JEAN THOMPSON AND M. DION THOMPSON

LONG BEFORE "The Civil War" raged on public television and families discovered their "Roots" with Alex Haley, early America's conflicted race relations inspired the writing of Benjamin Quarles. A historian by training, a writer at heart, he believed the version of America's history accepted in his day was incomplete.

At his death on Nov. 16 at age 92, Quarles, a former professor and chairman of the history department at Morgan State University, left a legacy of scholarship that filled the void, revealing a richer and more complicated story of the founding and development of this country.

He is remembered as one of the first historians to portray the contributions and struggles of blacks and whites in early America as inextricably intertwined. His work would help make black history a legitimate and recognized field of academic study.

Ultimately, Quarles' research would help change the way we view the nation's past.

When the black pride movement blossomed during the 1960s and 1970s, student activists began demanding textbooks and classes that portrayed their ancestors' ingenuity, patriotism and courage - and not just their enslavement. No longer could the history of black Americans be dismissed with a paragraph or two about slavery or an illustration of a cotton field.

Quarles' books then found wide audience, accepted on campuses because of his meticulous documentation, and also because he stayed the disciplined course of academia rather than using history as propaganda. He was hailed as a pioneer.

But he was no radical. He was a quiet, bespectacled man in a fedora, tipping his hat like a gentleman as he encouraged a school of thought that our parents passed down to us, and that we must pass on to the next generation: The path to black pride is down the road of history.

"To an academician, history is the pursuit of truth, no matter where the truth leads, because we believe the truth is a liberating factor in itself," he told The Sun in a 1977 interview.

What Quarles did was provide the tools to help us navigate that often thorny path: nearly a dozen books that he wrote or co-authored, plus chapters in more than 20 books, plus encyclopedia entries and more than 100 book reviews. This year his 1961 book, "The Negro in the American Revolution," was reprinted. The third edition of his landmark 1964 book, "The Negro in the Making of America," came out in 1995.

For his 1953 book, "The Negro in the Civil War," he has been called "one of the first historians to place black people at the center of the war."

Quarles' first book, published in 1948, expanded his 1940 doctoral dissertation from the University of Wisconsin into a biography of the Maryland-born abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

For nearly 50 years, it stood as a definitive history of the man's journey from slave to statesman. In [See Quarles, 5f] 1991, historian William S. McFeely followed Quarles' trail and used a half-century of newer scholarship to expand our knowledge of Douglass.

Here's what McFeely, of Wellfleet, Mass., wrote in the acknowledgments: "Perhaps my greatest debt is owed to Benjamin Quarles. That book, now almost 50 years old, is so excellent that I have often wondered why I was attempting my study. But Professor Quarles did not feel that way: With a generosity as rare as it is fine, he welcomed me to Baltimore and he encouraged me to undertake the biography."

He was generous even to the generation of historians who followed him but who chose an activist approach.

"I think of these young black radicals as perhaps the inheritors of the mantle of the Revolutionary generation 200 years ago," Quarles told The Sun. "They look not at what has been done, but at what has yet to be done. And sometimes there is a revolutionary rhetoric there, but they too are part of the historical process, and at some point there is an inevitable fusion.

"History is a cornucopia, and even people who use it for their own means do give us an insight that otherwise we might have lacked."

His assessment is fundamentally a summary of his life's work. Quarles mined the documents of early Americans whose opinions and insights were vastly overlooked, feared or underestimated by his peers in academia: letters home from black Civil War soldiers, church and fraternal records of free and newly freed blacks, diaries of black nurses, impressions of seamstresses and factory workers about the wrenching changes society they witnessed.

Today, the insights and protests of poorer or downtrodden or disadvantaged classes of men and women are no longer considered lowly by academicians, and are counted as history along with the writings and thoughts of the mighty and the wealthy.

Quarles's work continues to inform retellings of the American drama by documentarians, biographers and contemporary historians. It is common to find his name in credits, bibliographies and footnotes, especially in military histories and accounts of the Civil War and Reconstruction periods.

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