In the early 1970s at the height of the Vietnam War, Navy engineer Raye Montague was given the daunting task of designing a U.S. Naval warship within a single month. The process had, up to that point, typically taken two years.
Montague, the Navy’s first female program manager of ships, called in her staff on a Saturday morning and started up a computer program that she had created. Eighteen hours and 26 minutes later, the computer’s printer churned out the complete specifications for the design of a frigate. It was the beginning of a new, pioneering chapter in Naval ship design, and Montague was at its center.
As Katharine Q. Seelye reports for the New York Times, Montague died of congestive heart failure earlier this month at the age of 83. Her often overlooked contributions to America’s military history, which she made in the face of explicit racism and sexim, have started to gain new recognition in recent years. In 2017, the Navy referred to her as its own “hidden figure,” a reference to the book and movie about three little-known black women who played a vital role in NASA’s accomplishments during the Space Race.
Born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1935, Montague came of age in a deeply segregated South. She graduated from high school in 1956, one year after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on an Alabama bus, and one year before the Little Rock Nine caused a firestorm when they enrolled at a traditionally white school. Though Montague’s mother encouraged her daughter to aspire to greatness in spite of this climate of racial tension, she made it clear that the road ahead would not be easy.
“You’re female, you’re black and you’re going to have a segregated school education—so you’re going to have three strikes against you,” Montague recalled her mother saying in a 2012 interview with Rhonda Owen of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “But you can do anything you want to do and be anything you want to be.”
What Montague wanted was to be an engineer. During WWII, when she was seven years old, her grandfather had taken her to see a German submarine that had been captured off the coast of South Carolina. Montague asked someone working at the exhibit what she would have to do to work on a similar ship.
“You’d have to be an engineer, but you don’t have to worry about that,” he said, as Montague remembered while speaking to Good Morning America.
“I didn’t realize I had been insulted,” she added.
Montague had hoped to study engineering at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, but at that time, the school did not award engineering degrees to African American students. So Montague obtained a business degree from the Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical & Normal College, and then moved to Washington, D.C. to work as a typist for the Navy. All along, her plan was to rise in the ranks. She studied computer programming at night, and was eventually promoted to a digital computer systems operator and a computer systems analyst. After one year, she asked her boss for another promotion. He told her that if she wanted the job, she would have to work nights—a problem for Montague because the buses did not run late and she did not know how to drive. Determined to push forward, she bought herself a 1949 Pontiac and taught herself to drive—slowly. If she left her house at 10 p.m., she would make it into the office by midnight.
Montague was promoted, but her struggles did not end there. She told Good Morning America that she was surrounded by male staff who thought she was “the help.” She recalled one instance when she walked into a meeting room, and a male co-worker said, “I’d like a cup of coffee.”
“So would I,” she replied. “Be sure mine has cream and sugar.”
In around 1970, Montague’s supervisor gave her six months to create the first successful computer program for ship design, failing to disclose that their department had been trying unsuccessfully to accomplish the task for years.
“I hate to say this, but he was a racist,” Montague told Owen. “So he decided ... to get rid of me.”
She quickly realized that she would need to tear down and rebuild the computer, which would require working day and night. Her supervisor made it clear that he would not be paying any of the staff overtime to help her, and also said that she couldn’t work at night unless she had someone with her. So she brought her mother and three-year-old son, David, into the office.
“I put him over in a corner and taught him how to punch cards,” Montague told Owen. “When he’d get sleepy, I’d put him on a desk and cover him with a blanket.”
When Montague’s supervisor saw how committed she was to meeting his deadline, he supplied her with a full night staff. Word of the program they created reached then-President Richard Nixon, who asked to see plans for a computer-designed warship, quickly. This prompting from the president led to Montague and her team creating the first computer-designed Naval ship plans in under 19 hours.
In honor of her work, Montague was granted the Navy’s Meritorious Civilian Service Award in 1972. Her program became central to the design of warships and submarines, and she worked for the Navy for 33 years. When she retired in 1990, Montague was given a flag that flew over Washington, D.C., along with a certificate saying that it had been raised in her honor.
“Can you imagine that from a grateful nation?” Montague asked during her Good Morning America interview. Then, as if still in disbelief about how far she had come, she exclaimed, “A little girl from Little Rock!”