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Breaking Barriers, Part 1

The Raye Montague Story

by Elizabeth M. Collins, Defense Media Activity
01 February 2018 Seven-year-old Raye Jordan gasped with excitement, her eyes wide with delight, as she held on tight to her grandfather's hand. She had never seen anything like the small German submarine before.
Captured off the coast of the Carolinas, it held just one sailor, it had been on a tour of the U.S. in 1942, and was now docked in her hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas.

Montague climbed the ladder and went down the hatch. She looked through the periscope, and examined the dials and mechanisms.

"What do you have to know to do this?" she asked the tour guide, fascinated.

"You'd have to be an engineer, but you don't ever have to worry about that," he replied.

"I didn't realize that I had been insulted," she said in an interview a lifetime later.

Jim Crow

In 1935, Raye Jordan Montague had been born into a world of segregation, Jim Crow, poll taxes, separate lunch counters and backs of buses. Society, especially Southern society, expected her to be a wife, a mother and a maid, or, maybe, if she was lucky, a secretary or a teacher. She certainly wasn't expected, or even allowed, to be an engineer. In fact, the only engineering program in the state expressly forbade African-Americans - or, "Negros" as they were called then - from enrolling. As the tour guide had indicated, engineering was the preserve of white men.

He would be one of many to tell Montague that no, she couldn't do something, that her race or her sex made her less of a person, less smart, less talented. Like so many others, he didn't realize that he was challenging her, making her all the more determined to succeed.

"I asked my mother to take me to find out what was required to become an engineer, and she did: the math, the science and thinking outside the box," Montague remembered, calling her mother, Flossie Graves Jordan, the wind beneath her wings. "My mother told me, 'Raye, you'll have three strikes against you.' Now, remember I'm a little kid. She said, 'First, you're female and you're black ... and you have a southern, segregated school education. But you can do or be anything you want to be provided you're educated. ...
There's no such thing as women's work or men's work if you're educated.'"

Education was everything to Jordan, a single mother for much of Montague's childhood. She supported her daughter as first a teacher and then as a hairdresser. Montague actually spent a lot of time playing with white children. In the innocence of youth, she didn't even know she was different. She didn't understand the color of her skin mattered. She couldn't understand why they went to one school and she went to another.

Now in her 80s, Montague still remembers the day she realized that in Arkansas, the color of her skin did matter. It mattered very much: "My mother was very fair skinned with green eyes and red hair and she was listed as white on her driver's permit. She was not. ... At that time, black people sat from a certain point on the bus to the back of the bus. ... The bus was crowded. This white Soldier stood up and gave my mother his seat. My mother sat down in the white section and the bus driver drove off until my mother reached down and pulled me up on her lap. The bus driver stopped the bus and said, 'You get up and give that white woman your seat.' I thought I had done something wrong and hurt my mother so I started to cry. ... When we got off the bus, she told me that I hadn't done anything, but that was the law of the land at that time and the only way we could change that law was to be educated and to vote."

VIRIN: 170327-N-SK590-002

Even voting was hard: At that time in the South, African-Americans had to pay a $1 poll tax to vote, but Jordan made sure to take her only child with her to vote during each election. When she remarried and the family moved 45 miles away to Pine Bluff, she made sure to help buy new books for the African-American school. It had been using hand-me-down books from the white school that were worn and out-of-date.

"That upset me," Montague remembered. "Our teachers in Pine Bluff wanted to go to graduate school and they were not allowed to go to graduate school in the state of Arkansas. They received a stipend to go to school out of state. ... When they came back, they convinced our parents to buy new books for us that were state of the art, essentially. So we actually had better books than kids at the white schools and we were being taught at a higher level because our teachers had masters' degrees. At that time, the white schools could be taught by teachers who had two years of college, but in our schools, the black schools, the teachers had to have a four-year degree. And, of course, here I am all of a sudden being taught by people who are getting masters' degrees."

Soon, Montague was so far ahead that she was helping her white friends with their homework. Of course, she still couldn't get into the engineering program at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, but her mother and her teachers encouraged her to dream anyway. "Aim for the stars," Mrs. Irma Holiday told her. "At the very worst, you'll land on the moon."

Rising Above

Montague planned to do just that.

She didn't waste time regretting what could never be. Instead, she went to college in Pine Bluff, to Arkansas A&M College (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff), the same school her mother had attended before her, the same one her great uncle had graduated from in 1902. She majored in business, signed up for the debate club and joined a sorority.

VIRIN: 170327-N-SK590-001

Then, halfway through her first year, Jordan's money started running out. She didn't know how she would get her daughter the education she so valued. Then, just as Montague would have to withdraw from school, she was hit by a truck while crossing a road that cut through campus, her hip cut, her leg broken.

"This was a Godsend," she said. The pain, the recovery - they didn't matter. "The state of Arkansas was then responsible for my education. They had to pay for my tuition and books for the rest of the time I was in college. ... The money's running out. My mother doesn't know how I'm going to finish college, and here, the state of Arkansas had to support me in school."

Montague graduated in 1956. The next day, she took her shiny new bachelor of science degree, "marched off for Washington, D.C., fanned my resume around and ironically enough, the first people to call me in for an interview was the Department of the Navy."

She had a bachelor of science, "the cutting edge of technology," so she must know how to work a computer, they said during the interview. These were the days when computers took up entire rooms, and all of the dials and switches resembled airplane cockpits. There wasn't a single computer in the whole state of Arkansas. Montague had certainly never seen one.

"Well, of course I do. I know all about it," she bluffed. The Navy hired Montague as a clerk-typist, grade GS 3. Two weeks later, she had figured out how to work the computer. A decade and some later, she used a computer to revolutionize Navy shipbuilding, becoming the highest ranked African-American woman in the whole department. In the process, she broke barrier upon barrier for women and minorities. She made history.

"It's beyond my wildest dreams," she said. "I look on it in this vein: Had I been accepted to the engineering school at Fayetteville, I probably would have been stuck in a little cubby hole someplace, never being allowed to do the wonderful things that I've been able to do, to touch the lives that I've loved or to have the lives touch me."

Editor's note: For Part 2 of Raye Montague, click here.