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Bowie, Howard Historian Martha Putney

Martha S. Putney wrote about the history of blacks in the U.S. military and merchant marine.
Martha S. Putney wrote about the history of blacks in the U.S. military and merchant marine. (Family Photo - Family Photo)
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By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 22, 2008

Martha S. Putney, 92, a retired historian at Bowie State and Howard universities and the author of a book about African American women who served in the Women's Army Corps (WACs) during World War II, died Dec. 11 of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at Community Hospice of Washington. She was a longtime resident of the District.

Dr. Putney's book "When the Nation Was in Need: Blacks in the Women's Army Corps During World War II" (1992) was a reflection of her own experience.

One of eight children born to Oliver and Ida Settle in Norristown, Pa., she won a scholarship to Howard University, where she received her undergraduate degree in 1939 and her master's degree in history in 1940. Unable to find a teaching position, she took a job as a statistical clerk with the War Manpower Commission.

She hated the drudgery and the institutional racism she experienced, so in 1943 she applied to join the WACs, then less than a year old. She was one of 40 black women who were selected after being personally approved by Mary McLeod Bethune, president of the National Council of Negro Women and friend of Eleanor Roosevelt.

The Army assigned her to its basic training center at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, where she trained female recruits. Later, she commanded a unit of black medical technicians at Gardiner General Hospital in Chicago.

"I wouldn't trade the experience for anything. But once I got out, I was glad it was over," she told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1998. "A lot of women were sent to the South and had terrible times."

She also had distressing experiences. At Fort Des Moines, black WACs were allowed to use the base pool only on Fridays, after which the pool was cleaned.

Profiled in Tom Brokaw's "The Greatest Generation" (1998), Dr. Putney recalled how a group of German officers, prisoners of war at a garrison near Des Moines, were invited into the Fort Des Moines officers club while black officers were barred.

She also recalled how black musicians were banned from the base band, so they formed their own -- "maybe the first all-black, all-female military band in the world," Brokaw noted. When Army officials in Washington ordered that base officials disband the group, Dr. Putney protested. Eleanor Roosevelt eventually intervened on the band's behalf.

"I knew when World War II approached it would be a terrible thing, but afterward I was so grateful. . . . It provided opportunity," Dr. Putney told Brokaw.

After her discharge as a first lieutenant in 1946, Dr. Putney returned to her old government job but soon moved on. Taking advantage of the G.I. Bill, she received her doctorate in European history in 1955 from the University of Pennsylvania. She taught briefly at Morgan State University and Prairie View A&M University before becoming a history professor at Bowie State in 1955. She was chairman of the history and geography department until 1974 and then taught at Howard until her retirement in 1983.

Her first book, "Black Sailors: Afro-American Merchant Seamen and Whalemen Prior to the Civil War," was published in 1987. She waited so long to write her second book, she said, because she wanted it to be as objective as possible.

"It is my thesis that military integration made the basis for the emergence and the expansion of the black middle class," she said in a 1998 interview.

She was a member of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society and the NAACP. She had served on the editorial board of the Journal of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society. In addition to her two books, she published a number of scholarly articles on African American history and edited "Blacks in the United States Army: Portraits Through History" (2003).

Her husband, William M. Putney, died in 1965.

Survivors include a son, William M. Putney Jr. of Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

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