An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Breaking Barriers, Part 2:

The Raye Montague Story

by Elizabeth M. Collins, Defense Media Activity
28 March 2017 Raye Jordan Montague was breaking the rules. She wasn't supposed to use the computer.

She had been hired as a clerk-typist, GS 3, only two weeks earlier. She had a college degree in business, but that didn't matter much in 1956. As a woman, especially a black woman, she couldn't expect much more than a glorified secretarial job.

Still, it was a start, better than any opportunity Montague would have found back home in segregated Arkansas. She had never even seen a computer before, barely even heard of one, but now her duties included reading and comparing metallic data tapes from the cockpit-sized UNIVAC 1 computer at the David Taylor Model Basin in Carderock, Maryland, one of the largest ship model basins in the world.

A would-be engineer, Montague was fascinated by the computer, but she wasn't allowed to actually touch it.

"'Teach me how to use the computer,'" she asked the engineer who ran it. "He said, 'No. If I taught you how to operate the computer, you'd have my job.'

"Well," she said, "you can't let me stand there and watch somebody do something for a couple of weeks and think I'm not going to catch on to what they're doing."

When all of the engineers called in sick a couple of weeks after she started, Montague seized her chance.

"I mounted my tapes and I sat there and read them," she remembered. "I walked over to the computer and slowly but surely started to flip the switches. ... Slowly but surely I started to do my type ins and the tapes moved off. I could see my coworkers ... peeping around the corner. They went back and told my manager and he came out and I kept doing what I was doing."

"Raye," he said, "I didn't know you knew how to operate the computer."

"I don't," she answered.

"Well, what are you doing?"

"Well, I know how to do enough to get my job done."

"Fine. You know more than any of the rest of us here, so from now on, this is your job."

Glass Ceilings

"I created every job I had after that," she laughed, explaining that she then had to teach the other civilians to work the computer. She quickly realized, however, that the men were suddenly making more money. When she asked her boss why she too hadn't been given a raise, he explained that her male colleagues had cars and could work the night shift. "He thought that was the end of it. He didn't know me that well."

Montague technically didn't have a driver's license, but she wasn't going to let a little technicality like that stop her. The next day, she bought a 1949 Pontiac for $375, then volunteered for the night shift.

"I'd leave home about 10:00 and I'd drive no-mile-an-hour," she said. "I'd get there for the midnight shift and I'd go 'phew' and I'd go in and work all night. And then, the next morning, people thought I was being so nice because I would hang around and help them mount their tapes and do the different things and laugh and talk with them. They thought that I was just being so kind. I'd hang around until about 9:30 for the traffic to let up."

Montague eventually got her promotion, and then another and another as she continued to work hard and develop her computer skills, eventually going to work for the Naval Sea Engineering Center.

"My new boss came about three days later, and he said, 'Hi. I've come to meet the new guy,'" she recalled, explaining that she never used a title and most people assumed she was a man. "I said, 'Hi. I'm Raye Montague,' and you always extend that hand and look them dead in the eye. ... I always kept that hand extended to force people to shake hands with me. ... His attitude was, 'Oh my God. Here I've got this black woman and didn't know it. How am I going to get rid of her?'"

Doing the Impossible

Her boss decided to give Montague an impossible task: The Navy had been trying to develop a computerized ship design program for six years with little success. Montague would have six months.

"She had to keep proving herself over and over that she could do the job, but she took that with a smile too and she was able to rise above those types of things," her coworker Trenita Russell said on "Good Morning America."

It all came down to hard work and determination. Montague met with the contractors responsible for the program, then "I'd work all day and come back at 7:30 at night and fire up the system, tear it apart," she remembered. "You can't do that during the day when people are waiting to get on the computer. I'd work until midnight and then go home and go to sleep and come back and work the next day. I never charged them a dime extra."

A couple of weeks later, Montague's boss caught wind of her nighttime activities, telling her, "Raye, you're not allowed to come in here and work alone at night."

It was just one more barrier to the woman who had been forbidden to attend the only engineering program in her home state of Arkansas and then became an engineer anyway. She started bringing her 3-year-old son, David, and her mother, Flossie, in with her at night. While her mother sat in the corner and worked on crosswords, Montague taught her son how to program the computer.

"Raye, why are you bringing your mother and son in here?" her boss asked a week later.

"You said I couldn't work alone at night," she answered. "I'm not alone."

Her boss gave in. He gave her a staff, and she got the ship specification system to work on schedule. Then he told her not to worry about ever using it. No one had ever expected her to succeed and no one had any idea what to actually do with it. "It was supposed to be an impossible task," she said. "I go back to my desk and I'm mad as all get out."

She didn't let her disappointment and anger show, however. She never did.

"You must be able to withstand a lot of the ridicule, the negative stuff that you run into," she advised. "You never let them know when they've got you down. I would come into work every morning, and they'd say, 'Raye, how are you today?' And I'd say, 'I'm great.' ... Sometimes I used to go down to my car and cry like a baby, but they never knew it. I'd come back, smile sweetly. ... My attitude was, 'I'll get you. I'll make you realize that I'm strong, I'm knowledgeable and I can run circles around you, and you don't have to give me a chance. I'll make my own chance.'"
VIRIN: 170328-N-OQ305-002

A New Design

That chance came just a few weeks later. President Richard Nixon wanted the Navy to design a new ship, and he wanted it fast.

"The admirals came to me and said, 'Young lady, we understand you have a system to design ships," Montague explained. "It normally takes two years to do the rough draft. The president has given the Navy two months. We can give you a month. Can you do it?' ... I brought that rascal in in 18 hours and 26 minutes," showing him the first-ever computer-generated rough draft of a U.S. naval ship.

That ship would become USS Oliver Hazard Perry (FFG-7), the first guided-missile frigate in its class. Montague added jet engines to make it go extra fast. In the process, she changed Navy shipbuilding forever. She received the Navy Meritorious Civilian Service Award, and "after that, my career just took off." The boss who had once tried to get rid of her sat her down and taught her everything he knew about shipbuilding.

Her other designs include the first landing craft helicopter assault ship USS Tarawa (LHA-1), the guided-missile destroyer USS Arleigh Burke (DDG-51) the Nimitz-class carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) and the submarine USS Seawolf (SSN-21). The Seawolf, her last design, was particularly poignant: The first time someone told her she couldn't be an engineer had been on a submarine when she was just 7 years old.

Still Fighting

Although Montague retired in 1990, many of her ships are still in the fleet today, still serving, still protecting freedom around the world, and she feels "so good" about it. "I'm still fighting for my country. ... I am still out there. ... We've got a great country and I'm very proud of it. I had to fight like the devil to get in there and do what I needed to do, but look at what I've done and look at how our guys and gals are using this stuff and defending our country, and they're defending so many other countries. Think of where we would be if we didn't have those ships and the people aboard the fleet. I'm just so proud of it."

In fact, when the Arleigh Burke fired Tomahawk missiles against terrorist targets in 2014, Montague was practically giddy. "I was listening when we attacked. ... My son came running in and he said, 'Mom, that's your ship!' and I said, 'I'm still fighting for my country. ... Can you imagine, after all of this time?' It's wonderful. ... I said, 'Thank you, God, for letting me see this.'"

Opening Doors

The little girl from Arkansas who couldn't even sit at a lunch counter eventually became the Navy's first female program manager of ships, a GS 15 position that made her the highest ranking African-American woman in the department. The young woman who wasn't allowed to study engineering became a licensed engineer in both the U.S. and Canada and sat on more boards than she could count.

She wasn't always welcome, and was, in fact, usually looked upon as the help when she walked in. One man was even so bold as to tell her he wanted a cup of coffee. "I said, 'So would I. Be sure mine has cream and sugar in it.'"

"I really started to understand how much of a pioneer she was when I was in college and she was about to retire," remembered her son, David, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. "Here's a person who raised me on her own ... never complained and just did it, and was excelling in her career. ... It helped me to understand the importance of due diligence, just hard work generally, caring for other people, not getting so caught up in the objective that you forget that you're supposed to have fun at it too and understand that you can't control everything. I learned a lot of valuable lessons from her. ... Seeing her go through what she went through and still feel a need to help other people, rather than just survive is, I think, one of the biggest lessons for me."
VIRIN: 170328-N-OQ305-001

Montague, who is still active in several service organizations and talks to prisoners about her experiences, never forgot where she came from, her son said. In fact, she's gone out of her way to promote people: "If you're not doing something to help others, what's the point of you being successful?" David asked, saying his mother taught him to bring people up in life.

"I had a sense of responsibility because if I failed on any step along the way," Montague explained, "it could always be said, 'Oh, we tried a black person in this role' or 'We tried a female in this role and we don't have to try again because she couldn't do it.' So I was responsible. I carried the weight, I felt, of women and minorities. ... When you climb the ladder, you open doors for other people and you reach back and you pull them up and you teach them and you let them know what's required to do these things. That's my role in life now. It's my responsibility.

"Open doors for other people," Montague said. "Don't be selfish. Try as hard as you can to encourage other people. Become a master of the game. That's one of the critical things. People change the rules of the game. When you think you've gone far enough to do things the right way, they change the rules so you still can't achieve. The secret to that is to become a master of the game and get inside the system so you can help change the rules. You have to change the rules so you can open the doors."

Editor's note: This is part two of a two-part series about Raye Montague's pioneering career Navy career. Read about her life in the segregated South in part one:

Also, view the teaser: