Martha Settle Putney was one of the first Black women to join the Women’s Army Corps during World War II. After the ending of the war, Putney became a historian and author who notably focused on the contributions of African-Americans in the military.
Putney was born Martha Settle on November 9, 1916 in Norristown, Pa. After working as a political campaigner as a young girl, she won a scholarship to Howard University from the candidate she helped get elected. Putney was a focused student, earning her bachelor’s degree in history in 1939 and a master’s in the same discipline the following year.
While she originally wanted to become a teacher, Putney couldn’t find employment because of her race. Instead, she took a job with the federal government’s War Manpower Commission. Putney toiled in the lowly job for some years before hearing about the opportunity to join the Corps in 1943. In an interview, Putney said she chose to join the Corps as it offered her an opportunity to become a commissioned officer. She was one of 40 Black women personally selected by Mary McLeod Bethune for the position.
While in the Corps, Putney dealt with various instances of racism, including a time when German prisoners of war were allowed into the Fort Des Moines officers club and Blacks were barred despite their rank. Also Black members of the Corps could only use the swimming pool on the Fort Des Moines grounds on Friday, after which it was cleaned.
After leaving the Corps in 1946, Putney, then a first lieutenant, returned to her government job and married William Putney two years later. The pair had one son, also named William.
Putney earned her Ph. D. in European History from the University of Pennsylvania in 1955, using the G.I. Bill. This would begin a long academic career that led to teaching stops at Morgan State University, Prairie View A&M University, Bowie State University and Howard University. She retired from teaching in 1983.
Putney has authored a number of journals and three books, including 2003’s Blacks In The United States Army: Portraits Through History. At the time of her passing in December 2008, she was working on another military history book.
Putney is survived by her son, William.