With three strikes against her (she was Black, female, and educated in segregated schools) Raye Jean Montague (1935-2018) was a trailblazer in both engineering and ship design. A hidden figure, she revolutionized the U.S. Navy’s ship design and became their first female program manager. She is credited with creating the first computer-generated draft of a Navy ship. Her contributions have remained hidden until recent years. (Why am I not surprised?) Raye held the civilian equivalent rank of captain, always crediting her mother for inspiring her and reminding her “you can do anything provided you’re educated.”
Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, to Rayford and Flossie Graves Jordan, it quickly became evident that Raye excelled in mathematics and science. When she was just seven years old, her grandfather took her to view a German submarine (captured) during WWII. “And I said to the guy, 'What do you have to know to do this?'" she recalled later. "He said, 'Oh, you’d have to be an engineer, but you don’t have to worry about that.'" For a short time, that man was right.
Once Raye had graduated high school, she set her sights on an engineering degree. Applying for entrance at University of Arkansas’s engineering program, she quickly learned she would not be admitted to the program because she was Black. Changing plans, she earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Business. Moving to Washington D.C., Raye took a job with the U.S. Navy as a typist while taking night classes in computer programming and engineering. (The girl was on a roll and would not be stopped!)
Raye’s position in the Navy’s office seated her next to the department’s UNIVAC I computer. By observation, she picked up on how to run the machine from ivy league graduates—the only people allowed to use it. Feeling “looked down on” because she was from Arkansas, Raye kept her distance until the day when all the computer engineers were out sick. When she ran the computer by herself, it was easy for her to show her worth. Grudgingly her boss allowed her to start running programs and gave her a raise—but she had to work the night shift. With no public transportation at night, and no driver’s license, Raye took it upon herself to teach herself how to drive after purchasing a 1949 Pontiac. (Talk about gutsy.)
Very soon, Raye was appointed a computer systems analyst as she continued to excel. Despite being surrounded by male staff who thought she was the help, Raye persevered. The real test came when she was asked to design a Navy ship using the computer (1971.) What her boss failed to mention was the fact that no one had been able to accomplish that feat after trying for years. Raye had to tear down the Navy’s computer and rebuild it in order to make a computer-generated ship design possible. (Later—Raye spoke of her boss’ bigotry. He had informed her she had to have someone in the office at night when she was there—she brought her mother and three-year-old son, David. She knew her boss was trying to get rid of her because he was such a racist.)
After proving it could be done, the Navy asked Raye to design a ship. What normally took two years on paper to accomplish, Raye’s boss asked her to finish in thirty days. Can you imagine their shock when she produced a computer-generated rough draft of a Navy ship in eighteen hours and fifty-six minutes? She produced the first draft for the FFG-7 frigate (the Oliver Hazard Perry-class). Years later, Raye worked on the USS Dwight D Eisenhower (CVN-69) and the Navy’s first landing craft helicopter-assault ship (LHA). The final project she was affiliated with was the Seawolf-class submarine (SSN-21).
Raye climbed the Navy’s civilian ladder becoming the program director for their Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) Integrated Design, Manufacturing, and Maintenance Program as well as deputy program manager of the Navy’s Information Systems Improvement Program. Raye also was the division head of the Computer-Aided Design and Computer-Aided Manufacturing Program (aka CAD/CAM). Raye eventually earned the civilian rank of captain. She was simply amazing!
Upon her retirement in 1990, Raye moved back to Arkansas and her work was mostly forgotten because of sexism and racism. She remained active in LifeQuest, the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, and remained a part of the American Contract Bridge League. Raye also mentored inmates (through the University of Arkansas at Little Rock) in a community re-entry program. In 2017, the movie Hidden Figures brought acknowledgement of many hidden Black mathematicians and engineers—one of which was Raye Montague.
DID YOU KNOW?
1.) Raye was awarded the Navy’s Meritorious Civilian Service Award in 1972 for her breakthrough process of a computer-designed ship.
2.) She was the first female engineer to receive Society of Manufacturing Engineers Achievement Award (1978) and the National Computer Graphics Association Award for the Advancement of Computer Graphics (1988).
3.) Raye was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame (2013) and in 2018, the Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame.
4.) Raye was also an RPE (internationally Registered Professional Engineer).
5.) She was awarded (as she retired) the U.S. Flag that had flown over Washington D.C. in her honor.