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Raye Jean Montague: A Real-Life Hidden Figure

Merrill School has produced dozens of notable alumni over the years. One of the most fascinating is Raye Jean Montague, a longtime employee of the U.S. Navy and a registered professional engineer who was incredibly influential in transforming the field of marine vessel construction.

What is it like to be overlooked and underestimated?

Raye Jean Jordan Montague could describe the experience. In fact, she talked about it during her keynote address at the 2017 Merrill All School Reunion.

Born on January 21, 1935, in Little Rock, Montague knew from a young age that she wanted to be an engineer. At the age of seven, she visited a German submarine that had been captured off the coast of South Carolina and was immediately fascinated by its mechanics. She soon set her sights on developing the technical skills necessary to work on such vessels but faced significant discrimination owing to her race and gender. Despite these barriers, she excelled academically, graduating from Merrill High School in Pine Bluff, Arkansas in 1952.

She enrolled at Arkansas Mechanical & Normal College (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff), completing a degree in business in 1956. At the time, black female students at the school could not pursue a degree in engineering, which was typical for the era. After graduation, she moved to Washington, D.C, intent on starting her career.

Her first job interview was with the U.S. Navy. She was initially hired as a clerk typist, but quickly rose through the ranks, becoming a digital computer systems operator at the Navy’s David Taylor Model Basin in suburban Maryland. Montague taught herself computer programming, gaining the requisite skills to design naval vessels. By 1962, she was working as a computer systems analyst at the Naval Ship Engineering Center, and later as a program director for the Naval Sea Systems Command. She also held management positions with the navy’s Computer-Aided Design and Computer-Aided Manufacturing (CAD/CAM) Program and its Information Systems Improvement Program.

Montague’s career spanned the development of computer technologies, from the UNIVAC I, the world’s first commercially available computer, to modern computers. She was a leader in the Navy’s transition to the use of Computer-Aided Design and Computer-Aided Manufacturing (CAD/CAM). In 1972, Montague was awarded the U.S. Navy’s Meritorious Civilian Service Award, the navy’s third-highest honorary award. She received this high honor in recognition of her breakthroughs in computer-aided ship design, including the singular achievement, in 1971, of revising the first automated system for selecting and printing ship specifications, a feat she accomplished in just eighteen hours, despite being given one month to do so by her department. This allowed her to produce a draft for the FFG-7 frigate.

On January 22, 1984, she accepted the newly created position of deputy program manager of the navy’s Information Systems Improvement Program. She was the first female to hold this position. She was also the first female professional engineer to receive the Society of Manufacturing Engineers Achievement Award (1978) and the National Computer Graphics Association Award for the Advancement of Computer Graphics (1988). She also received a host of other honors from military branches, industry, and academia. Montague worked on the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) and the Navy’s first landing craft helicopter-assault ship (LHA). The last project with which she was affiliated was the Seawolf-class submarine (SSN-21).

Montague retired in 1990. In 2006, she returned to Arkansas, living in west Little Rock. She was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame in 2013. In 2017, with the movie Hidden Figures drawing attention to the previously unacknowledged contributions of African American women who played a key role in advancing U.S. military and aerospace interests, Montague was featured on the television show Good Morning America and dubbed a “real-life hidden figure.” In 2018, she was inducted into the Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame and was conferred an Honorary Doctor of Law Degree from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

Montague died on October 9, 2018. Her son coauthored a book about her life, published in 2021. She was also the subject of a 2020 children’s book, The Girl with a Mind for Math: The Story of Raye Montague.

Sources: Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Black Past, Pine Bluff Commercial, David Montague, Rosie Thomas Pettigrew

Image Credit: David Montague, Rosie Thomas Pettigrew

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