BU Law mourns the passing of lifelong crusader who “put a dent” in discrimination.
Glendora McIlwain Putnam (’48), a Boston University School of Law alumna who spent her life working on behalf of civil rights, passed away on June 5 at the age of 92.
“Glendora Putnam dedicated her life to ‘kicking open doors’ that had been shut to her because of segregation and discrimination,” said BU Law Dean Maureen A. O’Rourke. “She is an icon and a role model as a lawyer, as a fighter for justice and equality, and as a human being.”
Born in 1923, Putnam is best known for her work as a civil rights attorney and her role as national board president of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). Growing up in Methuen, she was barred from entering her predominantly-white high school’s chapter of the YWCA.
“My view of the YWCA as I grew up was not very good,” she said in a 2013 speech to the Boston YWCA’s Academy of Women Achievers Luncheon. “But 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 when I was growing up, and the YWCA was always one of them.”
As an undergraduate, Putnam attended the historically black, all-female Bennett College, graduating in 1945 and coming to BU Law the same year. In a 2002 panel discussion in Barrister’s Hall, she recalled the friendships she made with other women in law school at the time: “We knew we were making it possible for women to come behind us and be treated as serious students of the law,” she said, “so we made ourselves serious students of the law.”
Admitted to the bar in 1949, Putnam related in an essay for the book Rebels in Law that her biggest obstacles at the beginning of her career came from being a woman: “I never got beyond that barrier to test the race barrier but from what black men were facing I suspect I would have fared no better,” she said. “Once they discovered I could not type, they made clear that that was what women were hired to do.”
Putnam’s BU Law classmate Edward W. Brooke (’48) would eventually become the first black man elected to the US Senate. As told in Rebels in Law, she worked on Brooke’s campaigns for offices in Massachusetts, and when Brooke became Attorney General of Massachusetts in 1964, Putnam joined him as an assistant attorney general for civil rights.
Over the next few decades, Putnam’s name became more and more prominent as she achieved key positions of responsibility. In 1969, Jet magazine reported that Putnam turned down a nomination from President Richard Nixon for a $36,000-per-year job in the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission in favor of a $15,900-per-year job heading the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. “Currently assistant attorney general of Massachusetts,” wrote Jet, “Mrs. Putnam, a black Republican, stated: ‘I simply had to weigh my freedom…’”
That job with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, she said in an interview with BU Law, was probably the most rewarding part of her career. When she joined the commission, the civil rights laws were still brand-new. A major part of her job was “moving the agency from a social work type of view to an enforcement view,” she said. “So when I went in, they didn’t have lawyers. I had been doing the legal work and I knew they needed it…. Once we built a good legal staff, we could make the agency into an enforcement agency.”
Putnam would later accept a nomination from President Gerald Ford as a deputy assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)—becoming, Jet noted, the highest-ranking black woman at HUD.
She spent decades serving the YWCA, watching it become fully integrated. She was elected president of the YWCA National Board in 1985. She traveled the world to represent the organization, often doing workshops on topics like racial justice and women’s leadership. “As I like to say: I did a lot for them, but they certainly did a lot for me,” she said. “Because they sent me places I never would have gone. I met people that I never would have met: wonderful, wonderful women around the world that are doing all sorts of wonderful things. And it was a joy.”
Putnam also worked as equal opportunity officer for the Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency, and served on the Massachusetts State Advisory Committee to the US Civil Rights Commission.
“My professional goal was to get rid of discrimination and segregation; that’s why I went to law school,” she said. “And I couldn’t conquer them all, but I think I put a dent in quite a few. I would do it all over again.”
Putnam received many honors and accolades throughout her life. In 1970, the Boston Business and Professional Women’s Club named her “Woman of the Year.” In 1988, she was inducted into the Academy of Distinguished Bostonians, and into the YW Academy of Women Achievers by the Boston YWCA in 1997. The following year, she received the BU Law Silver Shingle Award for Distinguished Public Service. The Museum of African American History declared her a “Living Legend” and presented her with the Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007. In 2013, the Boston YWCA bestowed on her the Sandra B. Henriquez Racial Justice Award.
She was named a “Woman of Achievement” by Boston Big Sisters, an “Outstanding Senior Lawyer” by the Women’s Bar Association, and one of the “Black Women Who Made It Happen” by the National Council of Negro Women. She also received the Humanitarian Award from the Boston branch of the NAACP and the Distinguished Achievement Award from the Massachusetts Black Lawyers Association.
She served on a number of boards, including her alma mater Bennett College (for which she was chair of the Board of Trustees), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights & Economic Justice, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Museum of African American History, and the Boston Conservatory. She served on the executive committee of the Boston University Law School Alumni Association.
Putnam will be honored at a memorial service on June 16 at 11 a.m. at BU’s Marsh Chapel. In lieu of flowers, her family has requested donations in Ms. Putnam’s memory be made to the Museum of African American History, Boston. For information about visitation, and burial arrangements, please see her obituary.
Reported by Trevor Persaud (STH’18).