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This Black Engineer’s Innovative Ideas Changed the Way Naval Ships, Subs Were Built

Engineer Raye Montague broke down barriers in the Navy by overcoming gender and racial discrimination to revolutionize the way naval ships were built.

At 7 years old, Montague was introduced to seacraft when her grandfather took her to see a German submarine that was taken on tour and made a stop at Little Rock. During an interview with THV 11 News Friday, Jan. 20, she said looking through the vessel’s periscope changed her life and inspired her to become an engineer, despite a man working with the tour putting her down.

“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?'” Montague recalls. “He said, ‘Oh, you’d have to be an engineer, but you don’t have to worry about that.'”

Montague said her mother told her the world would not take it easy on her for being a woman, being Black, and having a Southern segregated-school education. But her mother also infused in her the belief that “you can do or be anything you want, provided you’re educated.”

Unable to attend the University of Arkansas because she was Black, Montague went on to Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical & Normal College, now known as the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. She parlayed the engineering degree she earned into a job with the Navy.

“I started at the bottom of the ladder, even with a college degree,” she says of her journey.

But Montague put her time at the bottom of that ladder to good use. Day in and day out, she would watch how Ivy League graduate engineers ran the 1950’s UNIVAC computer next to her desk. One day when the engineers all got sick, Montague jumped up and ran the UNIVAC all by herself.

“Because ‘we’ weren’t supposed to touch that computer, right? And because I was from Arkansas,” Montague said of her detractors.

Over the next 14 years, Montague would become so proficient with computers, she would be transferred to design and construct ships.

“The admirals came to me and said, ‘Young lady, we understand you’ve got a system to design ships,'” she recalls. “And they said, ‘The president has given us two months, we can give you a month. Can you do it?”

“I brought that rascal in in 18 hours and 26 minutes,” Montague says with pride.

Montague has received countless awards from the Navy and the U.S. government over her lifetime for revolutionizing the design process for all naval ships and submarines. The U.S. flag was even flown in her honor over the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

“Isn’t it wonderful?” she says, beaming. “And just think how fortunate I was.”

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