In the spirit of the female African-American mathematicians whose efforts to strengthen and advance the U.S. space program despite discrimination are depicted in the movie Hidden Figures, Raye Jean Jordan Montague played an important if often overlooked pioneering role when it came to military seacraft. Montague, who was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1935, singlehandedly revolutionized how U.S. Navy ships are built.
As an African-American woman, Montague had to contend with numerous barriers both in the then-segregationist South and elsewhere as she pursued her career goals. She wanted to get a degree in engineering, but none of the colleges in her home state were accepting African-American women into those academic programs during the 1950s. Montague instead earned a degree in business from Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical & Normal College (the present-day University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff) in 1956.
That same year, Montague began her career with the Navy as a civilian employee at the Maryland-based David Taylor Model Basin, a test facility for ship design. The type of computer used at the facility at the time was the UNIVAC I, the first commercial computer made in the United States. Montague, explaining years later that “’we’ weren’t supposed to touch that computer,” initially wasn’t allowed to use the UNIVAC I. With great determination, however, she observed how others operated the UNIVAC I and soon taught herself to use the computer and learn the programming codes for it.
Montague’s self-taught skills ultimately earned her both respect from her colleagues and promotion to a computer systems analyst at the Naval Ship Engineering Center. Steadily rising through the ranks as a naval employee, Montague harnessed her technical expertise – and advanced computers – to help design more modern Navy vessels. She made history as the Navy’s first female program manager of ships.
Another major milestone took place in 1970 when Montague was directed to use a new automated system for selecting specifications to design the FFG-7 Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate. She was given a month to develop a draft for the ship and took only 18 hours and 56 minutes to do so. Her successful effort marked the first time that a U.S. Navy vessel was designed entirely by a computer.
In 1972, Montague received the Navy’s Meritorious Civilian Service Award. She retired in 1990, moving back to her native Arkansas after living in the Washington, DC, region for a half-century. Montague died in Little Rock in 2018 at the age of 83. “She was busy opening doors for people and inspiring them,” her son David said at the time. “Her message was always the same: ‘Don’t let people put obstacles in front of you, but understand you also have to put in the work.’ She didn’t have any patience for people who weren’t willing to go the extra mile.”
For more information on Raye Montague, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raye_Montague and her 18 October 2018 New York Times obituary at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/18/obituaries/raye-montague-a-navy-hidden-figure-ship-designer-dies-at-83.html.