Benjamin A. Quarles, January 23, 1904 - November 16, 1996

By Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn | Negro History Bulletin, January-March 1997 | Go to article overview

Benjamin A. Quarles, January 23, 1904 - November 16, 1996


Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn, Negro History Bulletin


Benjamin A. Quarles, Ph.D., scholar, teacher, administrator, mentor, role model and gentleman, remains a major force in the legacy of historically Black colleges and universities. Dr. Quarles is known nationwide among historians, primarily because of his pioneering scholarship in African American history, and his name still commands respect sixty years after he began his career as an educator in a historically Black institution.

Born January 23, 1904 in Boston, Benjamin Quarles attended an HBCU, Shaw University in North Carolina, from which he graduated in 1931. From Shaw, he went to the University of Wisconsin, where he earned his M. A. in 1933 and his Ph.D. in history in 1940. Like many of his colleagues, during his graduate study he continued to teach at an HBCU, first Shaw, from 1935 to 1939, and later at Dillard University, from 1939 to 1953. At Dillard he rose through the ranks to become a professor and the dean of instruction.

Benjamin Quarles was never simply a college teacher and administrator; he held demanding positions at HBCUs with many students and limited resources. His ability and passion as a scholar were apparent early in his career. His first article appeared in The Journal of Negro History (published by ASALH) in 1938 while he was working on his dissertation about Frederick Douglass. He researched and published books and articles for more than fifty years thereafter, when at age 85, failing health brought his prolific scholarly production to a halt. All in all, in 51 years, he produced 10 books, 23 articles, 70 shorter pieces, 11 chapters in books, 26 encyclopedia entries, 5 documentary sources, 12 introductions to reprints, and 170 book reviews.

He is perhaps best known for his biography and many articles about the life and times of Frederick Douglass, but many of his colleagues and students believe that his most seminal work was the book Black Abolitionists. In this revisionist study published in 1969, he challenged the traditional interpretation that abolitionists were primarily white reformers. Among the thousands of students who have taken United States history classes at Morgan State University, he is probably best known for his textbook The Negro in the Making of America. This brief work, first published in 1964, enabled faculty to easily integrate the African American experience into U.S. history survey courses.

Benjamin Quarles came to Morgan State in 1953 when it was still a college. Serving as chair of the Department of History for most of his tenure, he not only increased the faculty, expanded the curriculum and taught thousands of students, but also published seven of his major works and numerous articles, keeping abreast of new language and innovations in the discipline. …

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