Quarles, Benjamin Arthur

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Quarles, Benjamin Arthur

(b. 23 January 1904 in Boston, Massachusetts; d. 16 November 1996 at Cheverly, Maryland), renowned African American historian of the last half of the twentieth century.

Quarles was one of four children of Arthur Benedict Quarles, a waiter, and Margaret O’Brien, a homemaker. Quarles attended public schools in Boston and then matriculated at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, from which he earned a B.A. degree in 1931. He then entered the University of Wisconsin, which was noted for the excellence of its program in American history. There he earned an M.A. degree in 1933 and a Ph.D. in 1940. His dissertation was a scholarly examination of the life of the abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

Quarles began his professional career by returning to Shaw University, where he served as an instructor from 1934 until 1938, while still working on his doctorate. In 1938 he joined the history department of Dillard University in New Orleans as a professor of history. From 1946 until 1953, Quarles also served as a dean at Dillard. Moving in 1953 to Morgan State University in Maryland, he was a professor of history and chairman of the department of history until his official retirement in 1969. He then held the position of professor emeritus.

Quarles and his first wife, Vera Bullock, whom he married in 1937, were parents to one daughter. Vera died in 1951. Quarles then married Ruth Brett on 21 December 1952; they had one child, a daughter.

Quarles’s dissertation became the topic of his first book, Frederick Douglass (1948). With its publication, he became a pioneer in African American history, following in the footsteps of the early twentieth-century pioneer of that subject, Carter G. Woodson. Woodson and W. E. B. DuBois (more noted as a sociologist), tried to find traces of the African American past, a subject of little interest to most Americans. Woodson wrote primarily for a black audience and tried to use his writings to help those of African descent to discover their rightful place in American history. Although Quarles continued the crisp narrative style of his predecessors, his work broke new ground and was aimed at his professional colleagues. Because of his patient and meticulous research, coupled with a fluid narrative style, Quarles enriched his profession.

In the aftermath of World War II, and the resulting desegregation of the American military in 1948, Quarles turned to his next book, The Negro in the Civil War (1953), his lasting monument as an historian. He followed this success with a scholarly work on black participation in an even earlier conflict, The Negro in the American Revolution (1961). However, the Civil War era remained Quarles’s particular interest; at least three more of his published works focused on that era of American history.

In addition to these works, Quarles published a number of other books and scholarly articles. As black studies gained academic respectability, he teamed up with Leslie H. Fishel in 1967 to produce The Negro American: A Documentary History (in the third edition of the work, issued in 1976, “Negro” was changed to “Blacfk”). The book is a standard text for African American history classes. Quarles also contributed regularly to scholarly journals.

Some historians have accused Quarles of having too optimistic a view of the African American experience and of not giving proper attention to urban riots and the entire civil rights movement of the 1960s. He was analytical rather than confrontational. Rather than quarrel with white people, he wanted to demonstrate, in a cool professional manner, that while liberty and equality were American myths, it was impossible to understand American history without a knowledge of the reality of life for African Americans.

Quarles was a member of the National Council for the Frederick Douglass Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian, served on the fellowship selection committee of the American Council of Learned Societies, was a member of the project advisory committee to Black Congressmembers, and served on the Department of the Army Historical Advisory Committee. In 1958 he was a Guggenheim fellow. Later, he served as a consultant to the Library of Congress. Sixteen different universities granted him honorary degrees. He served on the building committee of the Amistad Research Center, a African American studies research center at Tulane University in New Orleans. Quarles died of heart failure in the Prince Georges Hospital in Cheverly.

During his career, Quarles was a punctual and popular teacher; on most occasions, his classes were overbooked. His students remember him as soft-spoken and always a gentleman. Because the nature of his scholarship and lectures were so often controversial, he avoided exaggeration and theatrics. There, too, one finds the roots of his attention to detail. The historian William Pierson said of Quarles that he “was incapable of meanness.”

The Quarles papers are in the Beulah Davis special collections of the library at Morgan State University. There are no biographies of Quarles. An obituary is in the New York Times (20 Nov. 1996).

Art Barbeau