Every March when Women’s History Month rolls around, the names of prominent women in America’s history are often mentioned: Susan B. Anthony, Amelia Earhart, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, among many more.
However, one name is rarely mentioned: Raye Jean Jordan Montague, former Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division employee.
Perhaps it is fitting that Montague’s name is seldom alluded to, seeing that she was honored by the U.S. Navy as one of its own “hidden figures” in 2017.
Montague, an African-American, was born on Jan. 21, 1935, and grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, during the time of segregation.
During World War II, when she was 7-years-old, Montague’s grandfather took her to see an exhibit of a captured German submarine.
“I looked through the periscope and saw all these dials and mechanisms. And I said to the guy, ‘What do you have to know to do this?’” she recalled several years later. “Oh, you’d have to be an engineer, but you don’t have to worry about that,” the man told her, implying that a young black girl would never grow up to be an engineer.
Fortunately, Montague had a certain level of confidence instilled in her by her mother.
“You’ll already have three strikes against you,” Montague recalled her mother telling her. “You’re female, you’re black, and you’ll have a southern segregated school education. But you can be or do anything you want, provided you’re educated.”
In 1956, at the age of 21, Montague graduated from Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical and Normal College – now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff — with a bachelor’s degree in business. She had wanted to study engineering but, at the time, no colleges in Arkansas permitted such degrees to African-American students. She would later take night courses in computer programming.
Later that year, Montague began her professional career at the David Taylor Model Basin — now NSWC Carderock Division — as a typist for several years before taking a job as a digital computers systems operator at the Naval Ship Engineering Center. Ultimately, it was there that she served as the program director for the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) Integrated Design, Manufacturing and Maintenance Program, while also serving as the division head for the Computer-Aided Design and Computer-Aided Manufacturing (CAD/CAM) Program.
But, well before she made it that far, after asking for a promotion, her boss informed her that she would need to work night shifts. Unfortunately, there was not public transportation at night, and Montague did not have a car. She ended up buying a 1949 Pontiac for $375. However, she did not know how to drive, so she taught herself. She ended up getting the promotion and was then tasked with what would be her single greatest achievement: to design a Navy ship using a computer.
In 1971, Montague did just that — she became the first person to ever design a naval ship while using a computer, when she produced the first draft for the Oliver Hazard Perry class-frigate. It would typically take two years to create a design of a ship on paper, however, due to the urgency of her tasking, which came directly from President Richard Nixon — during the heat of the Vietnam War — she was given one month to reach completion.
She finished the design in under 19 hours.
For her accomplishment, Montague was awarded the Navy’s Meritorious Civilian Service Award in 1972, the Navy’s third-highest honorary award. She was also nominated for the Federal Woman of the Year Award by the Secretary of the Navy.
Montague went on to have a 34-year career with the Navy, officially retiring in 1990. During her career, she managed to work her way from being a GS-3 to a GS-15, and held several invaluable positions along the way. From briefing the Joint Chiefs of Staff every month to teaching at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, to being the U.S. Navy’s first female program manager of ships and the first program manager of the information systems improvement program, Montague remained quite busy.
She also worked aboard USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69), as well as on the Navy’s first landing craft helicopter-assault ships (LHA).
Montague had not only a distinguished career, but also a highly decorated one. In 1978, she was the first female professional engineer to receive the Society of Manufacturing Engineers Achievement Award, and in 1988, she received the National Computer Graphics Association Award for the Advancement of Computer Graphics.
Upon retiring in 1990, she moved back to Little Rock where she was active in several organizations, such as LifeQuest, The Links Inc., the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority and the American Contract Bridge League. She also mentored inmates as part of a community re-entry program through the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
However, most of her accomplishments were largely forgotten after she retired. She was not recognized publicly until 2012 when The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette wrote an in-depth profile of her. She didn’t receive more national recognition until 2016 when the book, Hidden Figures: the Untold Story of the African American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, by Margot Lee Shetterly was published and turned into a movie that same year – generating an interest in other previously little-known black women who had made remarkable contributions with their technical achievements.
NAVSEA honored Montague as their own “hidden figure” in 2017.
She was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame in 2013 and Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame in 2018. In May 2018, she received an honorary Doctor of Laws Degree from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.
Montague passed away on Oct. 10, 2018, due to congestive heart failure. In 2021, her son, David, co-authored a book based on his mother’s life, entitled, Overnight Code: The Life of Raye Montague, the Woman Who Revolutionized Naval Engineering.