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Martha Putney, WAC
*Martha Putney was born on this date in 1916. She was a Black educator and historian.
Born Martha Settle, she was the daughter of Oliver and Ida Settle of Norristown, Pennsylvania. Her father worked as a laborer to support his wife and eight children. As a young woman, she helped garner Black votes for a candidate for Congress whom she had heard speak. The candidate won, and with his help, she got a scholarship to Howard University, where she received a bachelor's degree (1939) and a master's degree in history (1940). Failing to find a job as a teacher in Washington’s public school system, she toiled unhappily as a statistical clerk with the government’s War Manpower Commission. The future looked bleak.
On February 1, 1943, Putney joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. She entered the 35th Officer Candidate School at Fort Des Moines, IA, where she was commissioned on July 7, 1943. After completing OCS, Putney was assigned as a Basic Training Company Officer at Fort Des Moines. She had two temporary duty assignments in Texas and was assigned company commander of the 55th WAC hospital company stationed at Gardiner General Hospital in Chicago, IL. Putney is the author of When the Nation Was In Need: Blacks in the Women’s Army Corps During World War II (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, Inc.) 1992.
The only war-era slight that hurt her was one that she was powerless to change at the time. Back in Des Moines, a group of German P.O.W.s being held nearby was invited to the officer’s club, the same club from which Black officers were barred. "They were letting the enemy in but keeping us out."
After the war, Putney’s doggedness helped her through doctoral studies at Penn on the G.I. bill. When Putney interviewed the late Dr. Lynn Case G’29 Gr’31, then head of the history department, she remembers him telling her, "‘We don’t give these degrees to your people.’ I just looked at him frankly and told him I didn’t want him and the University to give me one thing. If he didn’t think I could make it, let me know as soon as possible because I had no time to waste.
He said okay, and halfway through the semester, he told me, ‘You’re going to make it.’" Putney went on to teach at Bowie State College and then Howard University, pushing her students to work up to their potential. After retiring, she’s kept busy writing books and articles; her last project was a history of Blacks in the Army from the Revolutionary War. Putney was one of four recipients of the 1999 Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal, honoring individuals who have contributed to society in ways that reflect Roosevelt’s ideals.
She attributed her lifelong perseverance to lessons in self-esteem she picked up from her parents, family, and Norristown, Pa. "I just decided I wasn’t going to accept [other people’s] classifications for me," she said. "I knew that somebody would open the door for me if I kept pushing." She authored Blacks in the United States Army: Portraits through History, Black Sailors: Afro-American Merchant Seamen and Whalemen before the Civil War.
Martha S. Putney, who became one of the first Black women to serve in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II and who went on to write pioneering works of history on African Americans in the military, died Dec. 11, 2008, in Washington; she was 92.