Quarles was a pioneer in study of black history


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Taking Note of History

February 26, 2005|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Benjamin A. Quarles was a towering figure not only at Morgan State University, where he taught history for nearly 40 years, but also on the national scene: He was one of the country's foremost African-American historians and had written a critically acclaimed biography of Frederick Douglass.

As one of the pioneers in the study of modern African-American history, he was certainly an heir to scholar Carter G. Woodson.

"It's too bad that Carter G. Woodson, who was a pioneer in the field, never lived to see the promised land," he told the News American in a 1983 interview. "Today there's more interest from more young scholars, black and white, in the history of American blacks than ever before. I have a feeling it's going to open broad avenues of scholarship and research, full of rich and valuable information."

With the coming of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, which was a boon to his work, Quarles said that college students demanded textbooks that dealt factually with black history and corrected years of misperceptions promulgated by white "scholars."

"I was in the right place at the right time," he told The Evening Sun in 1983.

And he backed up his prodigious scholarship as the author of nearly a dozen books, including Frederick Douglass, The Negro in the Civil War, The Negro in the American Revolution, The Negro in the Making of America and Allies for Freedom and Blacks on John Brown.

He was a prolific book reviewer and also contributed chapters to more than 20 books and wrote 90 technical articles.

Quarles enjoyed reminding people that a substantial group of blacks had lived in North America since 1619 - a year before the Mayflower and its cargo of pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. And even earlier than that, he stated, evidence showed that blacks joined explorers and conquistadors to the Americas.

It was on the backs of black labor that the great tobacco and cotton fortunes of the South rose. They also toiled in the hot and steamy factories of the North.

"The black was the indispensable source of labor. He actually built the country," Quarles told The Evening Sun in 1981.

Even before Korea and Vietnam, they fought in all of the nation's wars.

More than 5,000 blacks fought in the American Revolution, he wrote, and 186,000 served during the Civil War, with about 40,000 perishing on the battlefield or in prisons. During World War I, 400,000 served, while 900,000 answered their country's call during World War II.

Quarles was born in 1904 in Boston, the son of a waiter, and graduated in 1931 from Shaw University in North Carolina, where he was valedictorian. He earned master's and doctoral degrees from the University of Wisconsin in 1933 and 1940.

He taught briefly at Shaw before joining the faculty at Dillard University in 1939 where he remained until 1953, when he came to Morgan. He was chairman of the history department until 1967.

Even though Quarles stopped teaching in 1974, he remained a stately figure on the school's Northeast Baltimore campus, where he could be seen walking, dressed in a suit, tie, long overcoat and carefully creased fedora.

He was 92 at his death in 1996.

"I can say categorically and without fear of contradiction that Benjamin Quarles was one of the finest, most original historians of his generation," John Hope Franklin, a distinguished African-American scholar and author, said at Quarles' death.

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