fb-pixelGlendora Putnam, 92, civil rights pioneer in legal, government fields - The Boston Globe Skip to main content

Glendora Putnam, 92, civil rights pioneer in legal, government fields

Ms. Putnam was the first African-American woman to serve as an assistant attorney general in Massachusetts, leading the civil rights division. handout

Speaking nine years ago to her law school alma mater, Glendora Putnam was characteristically to the point as she described what prompted her to become an attorney.

“My professional goal was to get rid of discrimination and segregation. That’s why I went to law school,” she said in a Boston University School of Law video, adding: “That’s what I set out to do. And I couldn’t conquer them all but I think I put a dent in quite a few.”

A civil rights pioneer throughout life, she bristled at being excluded from a YWCA club as a teenager and helped lead the organization to rid itself of segregation decades later. She persevered after graduating from law school, when firms would only hire her if she knew how to type well, and became the first African-American woman to serve as an assistant attorney general in Massachusetts, leading the civil rights division.

She also formerly chaired the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination in the 1970s, comparing the enormity of the agency’s work to being “given a teaspoon to shovel out an ocean.”

Advertisement



Much honored for her accomplishments in civil rights, Ms. Putnam died in her West Roxbury home June 5 of complications from a stroke. She was 92.

A recipient of YW Boston’s Academy of Women Achievers and Sandra B. Henriquez Racial Justice awards, she spoke in 2013 at the organization’s awards ceremony and recalled her exclusion from a YWCA group. “I decided that I was going to law school and I was going to kick open every door that had ever been shut on me,” said Ms. Putnam, who served as president of the YWCA national board in the late 1980s.

In an essay for the 1998 book “Rebels in Law: Voices in History of Black Women Lawyers,” Ms. Putnam said she had “no male or female role models before I went to law school.” Through her work, she filled that role for those who followed.

Advertisement



Geraldine S. Hines, the first African-American woman to serve as a state Supreme Judicial Court justice, said that when she arrived in Boston 45 years ago, Ms. Putnam “was the only black female lawyer that I knew at the time. She was the only role model that I was aware of. She was always encouraging and her message was, ‘You’re going to face obstacles out there. That’s not a reason to stop doing what you know you need to do.’ I listened. I heard that loud and clear.”

Ms. Putnam “was one of those extraordinary women who inform our history,” said Margaret H. Marshall, former chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court.

“Packed into her slight body was a steely resolve to confront with dignity all of the many barriers that were erected in her path as she pursued her chosen profession, the law,” Marshall added.

Ms. Putnam began chairing the MCAD in 1969 and was an incisive critic of the way things had always been done. As tech firms took up residence along Route 128 and the families of workers filled the suburbs, she took note of the lack of diversity and dubbed the highway “The Great White Way.” African-Americans were absent, and often excluded, from those jobs and neighborhoods, she said.

“They are still struggling upon a treadmill of indifference, a treadmill of prejudice,” she told the Globe in 1969.

Advertisement



In a 1985 Globe interview, Ms. Putnam described herself — by then in her early 60s — as a “constant optimist who thinks change is possible,” but added that she had “been at it long enough to see the trend, that you go two steps forward and one step backward. But it doesn’t stop me because I know it is just a matter of time when we’re going to overcome that.”

The younger of two children, Glendora McIlwain was born in Lugoff, S.C., to Simon McIlwain and the former Katherine Stewart. Her parents moved the family north to provide better opportunities for Ms. Putnam and her brother, Luther. He grew up to become a Tuskegee Airman and a New York City police officer and died in 2013.

Upon arriving in Massachusetts in the late-1920s, the McIlwains were among the few African-Americans in their part of South Lawrence. As a child, Ms. Putnam rode with her family in a Model A Ford to civil rights meetings.

“I was exposed to working for causes at a tender age,” she told the Globe in 1985.

“She’s a product of our home environment,” her brother told the Globe that year. Ms. Putnam “stood her ground” when taunted by white children and “had a lot of grit,” he added. “Nothing ever scared her. She had our father’s bulldog tenacity and still does.”

Stressing community and political involvement, their father founded a civic league and served as president of a Republican club. “One of the things my father’s father always believed was that the vote was a very important thing,” Ms. Putnam said in 1985. “If he couldn’t find money to put food on the table, he found it to pay his poll tax because those were the days in the South that a black person had to pay a poll tax in order to vote.”

Advertisement



In 1945, Ms. Putnam received a bachelor’s degree from Bennett College, a historically African-American school in Greensboro, N.C., and graduated three years later from Boston University School of Law.

Her marriage to Harold Putnam, who formerly was a state representative from Needham, ended in divorce.

Ms. Putnam “was also very humble; you wouldn’t know that she was this civil rights trailblazer,” Maureen A. O’Rourke, dean of Boston University School of Law, wrote in an e-mail. “You would sooner know that her brother was a Tuskegee Airman than of all of her achievements.”

In her earlier years, Ms. Putnam became an assistant attorney general for civil rights when she joined the staff of Edward W. Brooke, a BU Law School classmate who was the first African-American elected attorney general in any state and the first African-American elected to the US Senate since Reconstruction.

Picked in 1969 by Governor Francis W. Sargent to chair MCAD, Ms. Putnam left the post several years later to serve as an assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity in the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. She subsequently returned to Massachusetts to work with the state Housing Finance Agency and served on the state Advisory Committee to the Civil Rights Commission. In 2012, the Museum of African American History in Boston named her a Living Legend, the museum’s highest honor.

Advertisement



A service has been held for Ms. Putnam, who left no immediate survivors.

“I always came away from my meetings with her tremendously inspired,” Hines said. “She was everything that a young lawyer in my day would want to be. She was a pioneer. She walked the path with her back straight – a smile on her face and an iron fist in her silk glove.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.