Engineer Raye Montague, a ‘hidden figure,’ improved submarines

Herb Boyd | 10/25/2018, noon

With the recent passing of Raye Montague, another notable Black engineer and technician, a “hidden figure,” has emerged from the shadows of racism and sexism to claim her rightful place in history.

It was not until 2012 that Montague, although honored by the Navy, was publicly acknowledged for her technical skills and breakthrough accomplishments during the Vietnam War. Like the now celebrated Black women who worked at NASA, who have Margot Lee Shetterley’s book and a movie to highlight their successes, Montague was all but forgotten for her role as the first female program manager of ships.

What Montague did was unprecedented in the Navy in her design of ships and submarines using a computer program she developed long before the technology became routine.

Montague also expressed a determination and certitude that was uncommon, and she began to revolutionize herself as she moved ineluctably toward improving the wartime naval prospects, eventually earning the civilian equivalent of the rank of captain.

As a child coming of age in Arkansas—born Raye Jean Jordan in Little Rock, Jan. 21, 1935—she was extremely bright and showed an early interest and aptitude in math and science. She graduated from Merrill High School in Pine Bluff, Ark., in 1952. Unable to pursue an engineering degree at the University of Arkansas, she attended Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical & Normal College (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff), graduating with a degree in business in 1956, just as the Civil Rights Movement was beginning to percolate across the South, particularly at Little Rock’s Central High School.

Engineering was still on her mind when she ventured to Washington and secured a job with the Navy as a clerk-typist. Overcoming racism and sexism, Montague was undeterred in her pursuits, climbing determinedly up the scientific ladder to become a computer systems analyst.

“I worked with guys who had graduated from Yale and Harvard with engineering degrees and people who had worked on the Manhattan Project developing the atom bomb,” she told the press. Along with her assignments at the job, she supplemented her trainings with classes at night school in computer programming.

When she asked for a raise, her boss told her she would have to work the night shift, which was a daunting challenge for a woman without a car and where there was no public transportation at night. To overcome the obstacles, Montague brought her mother and her 3-year-old son to the job, and that convinced her boss of her relentless drive to achieve. He even gave her additional staff so she could finish her computer-generated designs for a ship.

This ingenuity was something that had been festering for years in her mind, Montague later said, beginning when her grandfather took her to see a traveling exhibit of a German submarine that had been captured off the coast of South Carolina. From this moment she was transfixed on ships and submarines.

“I looked through the periscope and saw all these dials and mechanisms,” she recalled later. “And I said to the guy, ‘What do you have to know to do this?’” He told her she would have to be an engineer, but that was “something you don’t have to worry about.”