Harvard Prof. John Stauffer fails to acknowledge first modern Douglass biographer Dr. Benjamin Quarles

Stauffer in BaltimoreThe legacy of Dr. Benjamin Quarles of Morgan State University, the first modern Douglass biographer, is sacred.

On Saturday, February 10, 2018 Harvard Professor John Stauffer presented at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore. Before Prof. Stauffer spoke I introduced myself and made brief conversation. I shared with Prof. Stauffer my belief that Douglass has yet to benefit from the full force historical detective work of a biographer who captures the full depth of his entire local, national and international life. We exchanged our opinions of Douglass biographies.

I shared my opinion that McFeely’s work is speculative garbage. Prof. Stauffer professed his affinity for the work of Prof. Nathan I. Huggins. I shared my evaluation that Huggins’ book is a predictable regurgitation of Douglass’ own autobiographical writings, a route many “Douglass biographers” have taken across generations.

Expressing my continued dismissal of much of the scholarly writing on Douglass, Prof. Stauffer asked what I considered worth reading. Holland, Gregory, Quarles, Foner and Preston, of course, I responded.

I then asked his source for his expanding a speculative claim. We discontinued our conversation. I offered Prof. Stauffer a forewarning I’d be listening to his presentation closely.  I relayed my lack of reverence for Prof. David Blight, his former professor, and my evaluation of Blight “scholarship” as dangerous and blasphemous speculation.

I took my seat at the top of the rafters.

Prof. Stauffer initiated his presentation with a phrenology print. A studied Douglass scholar would have shared the consequential context, of which there is much, for what this specific print and the American Phrenology movement meant to Douglass.

It is a matter of the historic record what Douglass said and wrote about phrenology. Douglass broke it down with the sober focus and intense dedication of a fugitive slave-scholar.

As one of a small tribe of American bondsmen who could command the attention of the country’s ruling elites, Douglass had earned the requisite intellectual authority to speak on philosophical questions of the American character.

To speak with authority requires research, research Stauffer did not know.

More than half-way through his talk Stauffer began to discuss the historiography of Douglass studies. Speaking before a largely African-American audience in the largely African-American metropolis of Baltimore Stauffer began by offering Phil Foner as Douglass’s first modern biography.

From the back I spoke up and offered before the entire audience that Dr. Benjamin Quarles of Baltimore’s Morgan State University is the first modern Douglass biographer.

Stauffer acknowledge the fact. I opined to the confused audience that it was my job to make sure the facts shared were accurate. They tendered a meek laugh.

Keeping my comments to myself during the remainder of the professor’s presentation I was prompted to speak up during the audience Q&A.

A young woman asked Stauffer about the connections between Frederick Douglass and Howard University.

After Stauffer sustained an elongated pause I made it my place to speak, again, and shared with the questioner there would be a presentation of Frederick Douglass and Howard University later in the month. Stauffer had no response to the question. Nothing about Douglass and Howard nor the relationship between Douglass and Fanny Jackson Coppin.

After the crowd dispersed completely I spoke with Prof. Stauffer one on one.

I respectfully shared my thoughts: for someone who has made a career of speaking about the history of African American writers and historical figures his failure to mention, let alone acknowledge in specialized remarks, Dr. Benjamin Quarles, a member of the sacred Hall of Fame of Douglassonian Historians, is impious.

I told Stauffer his error to cite Quarles was inexcusable. No excuse would suffice.

In an effort to defend his lack of scholarly understanding Stauffer offered that he had cited Dr. Quarles in a previous book. I countered it did not matter because when given the platform to recognize Dr. Quarles he chose not to.

In the final analysis, the inability of Ivy League professors to do basic work to comprehend the requirements of Douglass scholarship clearly demonstrate the lack of academic rigor demanded by their respective hallowed centers of learning. The lack of scholarly standards, which allows for a repetitious cycle of stale “scholarship” to be promoted and celebrated in the place of of focused Douglass scholarship, has been perpetuated by hundreds of philanthropic, academic, government and public history associations and institutions over decades.

It is time for the lies to stop. Been time.

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