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BENJAMIN QUARLES AND THE HISTORIOGRAPHY OF BLACK AMERICA August Meier It has been more than four decades since Benjamin Quarles published his first scholarly article in the field of Afro-American history.1 With the appearance of his biography of Frederick Douglass in 1948, Quarles became a major contributor to the history of the black experience from the Revolutionary War through the Civil War. His leading works include the standard volumes on the role of Negroes in both of those conflicts, pioneering studies on black participation in the abolitionist movement, and two monographs on the interrelation between blacks and major white anti-slavery figures. Although at seventy-five Quarles is still a productive scholar, nevertheless, given the collective importance of this corpus of work, this seems an appropriate time to assess his contribution. As a scholar Quarles was a "late bloomer," and in facthis achievement was accomplished under considerableodds. Hewas born in 1904, one of five children of a Boston subway porter. After finishing high school he worked for several years as a passenger steamship porter and Florida hotel bellhop,2 and did not enter college until he was twenty-three. It was as a sophomore at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, that Quarles was first introduced to Negro history by an inspiring woman teacher. Subsequently an SSRC fellowship enabled him to start graduate work at the University of Wisconsin in 1931. Carl Russell Fish and the other Wisconsin historians under whom Quarles studied, like some professors in other graduate schools, assumed that blacks could not write "objectively" about their own past and were reluctant to An earlier version of this essay was read at the April 1979 meeting of the Organization of American Historians. I am indebted to the following individuals for their critical and helpful readings of earlier drafts of this manuscript: John Hope Franklin, who chaired the session, and Emma Lou Thombrough who served as commentator; John H. Bracey, Jr.; and colleagues at Kent State University: John Hubbell, Lawrence Kaplan, and Elliott Rudwick. 1 Quarles, "The Breach Between Douglass and Garrison," Journal of Negro History, XXXIV (Apr., 1938), 144-54. 2 Interview with Quarles, Nov. 17, 1958; Hollie I. West, "A Sense ofSelf Out ofthe Past," Washington Post, June 18, 1976. Civil War History, Vol. XXVI, No. 2 Copyright ® 1980 by The Kent State University Press 0009-8078/80/2602-0001 $00.65/0 102CIVIL WAR HISTORY permit their occasional Negro graduate students to do dissertations in Negro history. But William B. Hesseltine, under whom Quarles took his Ph.D., was at the time working on his biography ofGrant. Because of an interest in Frederick Douglass' role in the politics of the Grant administration, Hesseltine was led to make "an exception" in Quarles' case, permitting him to write his dissertation on the famous black abolitionist's public career.3 Quarles, who received his doctorate in 1940, had meanwhile been on the faculty at Shaw and Dillard Universities, and his scholarly career, already delayed, was further postponed by his duties as dean at the latter institution. Thus publication of his first book did not come until 1948, when Quarles was forty-four. For the rest ofhis career—atDillard and then as department chairman at Morgan State College—Quarles spent much of his time in administrative tasks. It was a mark of his discipline and his skill at budgeting time, thathe emerged as a scholar of considerable productivity, bringing out The Negro in the Civil War in 1953; The Negro in the American Revolution in 1961; Lincoln and the Negro in 1962; The Negro in the Making of America in 1964; Black Abolitionists in 1969; and Allies for Freedom: Blacks and John Brown in 1974. The Frederick Douglass biography, which set the tone for Quarles' future work, reflected two diverse, ifnot contradictory, influences: both the noted reformer Frederick Douglass himself, and the skeptical Hesseltine, who distrusted reformers' motives. On the one hand, the book displayed the meticulous scholarship and emphasis on narrative writing that Hesseltine instilled in his students.4 On the other hand, there was Quarles' fascination with Douglass, Quarles himself believing that his own interpretation of the black experience was unconsciously shaped by his encounter with...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 101-116
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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