Quarles, Benjamin Arthur 1904–1996
Benjamin Arthur Quarles 1904–1996
Benjamin Quarles was a quiet trailblazer. He was the first to give detailed attention to the contributions to America made by the unsung black soldiers of the American Revolution and the Civil War; the uneducated slaves who picked the country’s cotton and refined the sugar that sweetened life for others, and the brave abolitionists whose efforts to steer their own path had been forgotten over time.
Tracing the lives of this large population took a great deal of effort. It would have been far easier for him simply to tell the stories of individual black achievers, since most of them had the education to leave clues about the way they had lived their lives. But in most cases, the slaves and the black soldiers under Quarles’ historical microscope had not been as lucky. Many of them had lived in an enforced illiteracy that made it impossible to record their movements and their activities. For this reason they had died in a collective obscurity, their individual deeds forgotten.
It took a lifetime of hard work for Quarles to fulfill his two major goals. He hoped to show that the Declaration of Independence had not lived up to its vow of democracy for all Americans. Instead, it had issued the country’s black population with a “promissory note” that had taken three centuries to honor. But he also wished us to understand that the democracy we prize so highly cannot be truly understood unless we understand the huge contributions made by the anonymous African Americans of earlier days.
Benjamin Arthur Quarles was born in 1904, one of five children. He was reticent about his childhood, but we do know that his father was a Boston subway porter, that he graduated from high school on schedule, and that he entered the working world with a seasonal work ethic. In the summer, he was a porter on Boston-based steam boats ferrying vacationers to holiday resorts further along the coast. And in the winter he left Massachusetts for the warmer climate of Florida, where he worked as a bellhop in whichever hotel offered him a job.
It was not a lifestyle promising any worthwhile challenge, and Quarles found it decidedly unsatisfying. Then one day, at age 23, he happened to visit a friend at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. The atmosphere of scholarship and purpose at the college impressed him so much that he enrolled there, and plunged immediately into his freshman year of studies. Unfortunately this first start proved a false one. Uncertain of his own goals, he packed and left Shaw during his first Christmas vacation, only to return to school soon afterwards. The rest, as they say, is history.
At this stage of his studies, Benjamin Quarles had no firm thoughts about focusing on the study of black heritage.
At a Glance…
Born Benjamin Arthur Quartes, January 23, 1904, in Boston, died November 16, 1996; married Vera Bullock Quarles, d. 1951; m Ruth Brett, 1952; two daughters, Education: Shaw University, 1931; University of Wisconsin, MA, 1933; University of Wisconsin, PhD, 1940.
Career : Shaw University, 1935-39; Dilfard University, 1939-1953; Morgan State University, 1953-1974; authored Frederick Douglm, 1948; The Negro in the Civil War, 1953; The Negro in the American Revolution, 1961; Lincoln and the Negro, 1962; The Negro in the Making of America, 1964; Black Abolitionists, 1969; Allies for freedom: Blacks and john Brown, 1974
Award : Honorary Doctorate, Rutgers University, 1976.
In fact, he had no idea that there was a field of black studies at all, until his attention was drawn to it by Florence Walter, a white professor who had great respect for the way black Bostonians had advanced the causes of their fellow African Americans.
Once introduced to the idea, Quarles found himself more and more drawn to it. He fully expected to meet the same enthusiasm from his teachers, when he entered the graduate program at the University of Wisconsin. However, to his dismay he soon found the faculty reluctant to let him follow his own interests, for fear that he could not be objective about the way white Americans had treated their black fellow-Americans. “There was a feeling that a black person studying black history would turn it into propaganda,” he later recalled. Nevertheless, Quarles stuck to his plan, and eventually found a professor who consented to guide his thesis research.
Professor William Hesseltine had his own reasons for taking Quarles on as a post-graduate student. He happened to be writing a biography of President Ulysses Grant, and he felt Quarles’ work would be useful. Quarles felt the same way about Hesseltine, since his thesis topic happened to be Frederick Douglass, whose greatest years of influence had been during the time of the Grant administration. The two men, therefore, formed a working relationship which benefited both of them. Hesseltine finished his book in 1935, and Quarles earned a double honor five years later, by earning his Ph.D., and also by claiming his place as the first African American ever granted this degree by the University of Wisconsin.
In 1948, Quarles was 44 years old, and a dean of faculty at Dillard University. Despite a never-ending round of administrative duties, he somehow spared the time to publish his first book, a Frederick Douglass biography. It was well-received by the critics, who appreciated the smooth narrative style of writing Professor Hesseltine had trained him to use. It gratified the modest Quarles to see that the academic world was just as impressed, praising both his meticulous research, his analysis of the facts, and his unobtrusive editing of Douglass’ own manuscripts. The universal approval that greeted this biography established him as a leader in his field, and a historian striding far beyond the pioneering Carter Woodson’s simple documentation of events.
Quarles’ second book, The Negro in the Civil War, appeared in 1953, the year he moved to Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland, to chair the department of history. In this work, he set out to show the deep flaw in the traditional picture of slaves as passive pawns in the fight against slavery. On the contrary, he asserted, 3.5 million African Americans had been major participants in the struggle for democracy, 180,000 of them working as soldiers, and the rest as orderlies, spies, and laborers.
Quarles used a reference source of impeccable reputation to buttress his argument. In November of 1862 the revered Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson had assumed command of the First Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers, an all-black regiment consisting entirely of ex-slaves. Higginson, detailed his Civil War experiences in a diary later published as Army Life in A Black Regiment, had lost little time in tackling the same question that was now occupying Quarles—the extent of black participation in the march towards democracy. “How absurd is the impression bequeathed by Slavery in regard to these Southern blacks, that they are sluggish and inefficient in labor!” he wrote of his regiment on December 1, 1862, as he watched them unload a steamboat’s cargo, after a hard day’s work: “The steamboat captain declared that they unloaded the ten thousand feet of boards quicker than any white gang could have done it …”
While making his quietly emphatic point, Quarles set himself a precedent in The Negro in the Civil War. Though stressing the tragedy of the Lincoln assassination on April 13, 1865, he chose to end the book on the optimistic note that was to mark most of his future work.
“The colored people lost a friend and the nation lost a leader, but the legacy of the Civil War still abided,” he said. “For the war, with all its bloodshed and sorrow, was an emancipating and uplifting national experience.…” he added.
In his next major work, The Negro in the American Revolution, Quarles enlarged upon the theme of black Americans as major players in their own search for freedom. In its way it was a groundbreaking study, since it was the first to cast any light at all on the topic of the African American contribution to the revolution itself. From the outset, Quarles noted scrupulously that the British did not hesitate to try luring the slaves to their side with promises of freedom, but that the American fighters were not as eager to recruit them.
A researcher of extreme integrity, Quarles himself made sure, in his preface to The Negro in the American Revolution, to bring up the question of believable evidence. Admitting freely that the overwhelming majority of revolutionary-era blacks were not literate, he chose not to simply repeat oft-told tales of black exploits. “It is not easy to know what Negroes were thinking,” he cautioned. “Unlettered, they put very little down on paper. If they are to be understood, it must be primarily by what they did. Hence, especially in the pages of this work dealing with the Negro acting of his own volition, my approach has been to state the facts about his activities, indicate the documentary sources, and as far as possible avoid conjecture as to his unrecorded thought,” he continued.
By now, in the early 1960s, Quarles’ work had helped to germinate a firm interest in unearthing the true history of African Americans. But ever-modest, he preferred to put the subject’s new appeal down to several factors in the wider environment. The important seeds, he felt, had been sown years before, by the 1945 establishment of the popular Ebony magazine, by the desegregation decision of 1954 in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, and especially, by the death of the colonial era in African states such as The Ivory Coast, Kenya, and Ghana.
The growing respect for black pride and black heritage turned his research skills back to pressing social questions of the pre-Civil War era. How had the Republican Abraham Lincoln and Americans of color truly felt about each other? What importance had the aspiring president really given to ending the disastrous slavery blighting the country’s southern states? And how had the priorities of the Union tipped the scales in favor of emancipation?
Quarles set out to explore these important questions in his next book, Lincoln and the Negro. Bent on showing Lincoln as a man who gave deep attention to the issues of the day, he listed several objections the soon-to-be-president voiced during the 1850s, while serving his first political term. As always, Quarles observed, the pragmatic Abraham Lincoln covered most fields in this catalogue of opposition. He felt concern for the white workers of the North, who were forced to compete against unpaid laborers. He also felt that democracy was imperiled by slavery. As Quarles put it, “that no man was good enough to govern another man without that man’s consent.” Furthermore, Lincoln opposed slavery because it existed in opposition to the philosophy expressed in the Declaration of Independence, which had unequivocally declared all men to be equal. However, Lincoln also believed that blacks were mentally inferior to whites, that he did not support intermarriage, and that he made no effort to support voting rights for black Americans.
Still, Lincoln’s years in office proved him a true friend, and one willing to work to see that the democratic principles in the Declaration of Independence could be enjoyed by Americans of all faiths and colors. And that is why Quarles gave him this fitting epitaph in his book: “In the story they would relate to their children, Negroes would lay stress on the enduring Lincoln, in whom death was swallowed up in victory.”
Many scholars and students believe that Quarles’ work, until the end of the 1960s, was but a prelude to his 1969 publication, Black Abolitionists. This was his most seminal book, in which he brought together the threads of all the historical research that had previously occupied him. The preface listed his themes: the fact that slavery was firmly entrenched in the country a century before the Declaration of Independence; the anomaly of slavery in a land founded on the promise of freedom; and also, the kinship that free Negroes felt with slaves.
But Black Abolitionists was a groundbreaker also for another vital reason—it literally marked the very first challenge to the accepted view that abolitionists had been primarily white reformers. Methodically chronicling the decades before the Civil War, Quarles showed that blacks were already carrying the anti-slavery banners during the 1830s, rather than passively receiving good works by whites, as had previously been supposed. He depicted the black abolitionists as spirited opponents of contemporary efforts to colonize all black Americans in Africa, and made a special point of emphasizing how much they had resented the paternalization of missionary whites determined to uplift them willy-nilly. Warming to his theme, Quarles also showed that new Negro newspapers had come into being, which put the non-white viewpoint insistence on voting rights forth, for an audience of both black and white readers.
By the time he retired in 1974, many of Quarles’ ideas had taken firm root in American scholarship. To sum them up, that year he graced the magazine Daedalus with one of his thought-provoking essays. “The role of blacks in America—what they have done and what has been done to them—illuminates the past and informs the present,” he observed. “Unless we fully comprehend the role of racism in this society, we can never truly know America,” he concluded.
Frederick Douglass, Associated Publishers, 1948.
The Negro in the Civil War, Little Brown, 1953.
The Negro in the American Revolution, University of North Carolina Press, 1961.
Lincoln and the Negro, Oxford, 1962.
The Negro in the Making of America, Collier, 1964.
Black Abolitionists, Oxford, 1969.
Allies for Freedom: Blacks and John Brown, Oxford, 1974.
Higginson, Army Life in A Black Regiment, Penguin, 1997, p. 11.
American Historical Review, January, 1963, p. 474.
Daedalus, Spring, 1974, p. 163.
Journal of Negro History, April, 1938, p. 139.
Mississippi Valley Historical Review, December 1953, p. 540.
Negro History Bulletin, January-March 1997, p. 6.
New York Times, November 20, 1976, p. D21.
Washington Post, June 18, 1976, p. B1.
January 28, 1904
November 16, 1996
The historian Benjamin Quarles was born in Boston, Massachusetts. The son of a subway porter, Benjamin Quarles entered college at the age of twenty-three and received degrees from Shaw University (B.A., 1931) in North Carolina, and the University of Wisconsin (M.A., 1933; Ph.D., 1940). He taught at Shaw, served as dean at Dillard University in New Orleans, and chaired the history department at Morgan State University in Baltimore.
Quarles began his scholarly career at a time when racist assumptions hampered research and writing on African-American history. White historians questioned whether blacks could write history objectively, and they believed that African-American history lacked sufficient primary sources for serious research and writing. Quarles proved both notions were false. Building on the pioneering research of Carter G. Woodson (1875–1950) and other black historians of the previous generation, Quarles confirmed the existence of a rich documentary record of African-American life and culture. His early writings demonstrated both his careful research and his ability to present a balanced historical narrative. His essays in the Mississippi Valley Historical Review in 1945 and 1959 were the first from a black historian to appear in a major historical journal.
Quarles's first scholarly article, "The Breach Between Douglass and Garrison," appeared in the Journal of Negro History in 1938 and revealed his interest in race relations. Many of his subsequent studies explored the way in which blacks and whites have helped shape each other's identity on individual and collective levels. In Lincoln and the Negro (1962) and Allies for Freedom: Blacks and John Brown (1974), Quarles investigated the relationship between blacks and two notable whites in American history. He focused on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, particularly the collective contribution of African Americans in two dramatic events, in The Negro in the Civil War (1953) and The Negro in the American Revolution (1961). In Black Abolitionists (1969), he highlighted the participation of blacks in the nation's most important social reform movement.
Quarles shared with his contemporary John Hope Franklin (b. 1915) an optimistic appraisal of racial progress in American history. He brought his scholarship to the classroom through two textbooks, The Negro in the Making of America (1964) and The Negro American: A Documentary History (1967, written with Leslie H. Fishel Jr.), and he has advanced African-American history as a contributing editor of Phylon and as associate editor of the Journal of Negro History. On February 6, 1997, Morgan State University honored his legacy with a special event called the Memorial Convocation Celebrating the Life and Legacy of Benjamin Quarles.
Meier, August. "Introduction: Benjamin Quarles and the Historiography of Black America." In Black Mosaic: Essays in Afro-American History and Historiography, by Benjamin Quarles. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989, pp. 3–21.
michael f. hembree (1996)