The overwhelming success of the film Hidden Figures, starring Taraji P. Henson, highlighted three African-American women who were instrumental in propelling the U.S. space program. The state of Arkansas has a hidden figure of its own in Raye Montague, who is the first person to design a U.S. Navy ship using a computer.
Montague was born January 21, 1935 in Little Rock, Ark. As a girl, her grandfather took her to an exhibit in South Carolina featuring a captured German submarine. After peering at the controls for the vessel, the seven-year-old Montague asked the tour guide how the machines worked. He responded that it was a job for engineers and that she didn’t need to worry about it.
The response fueled Montague from that moment on, event though racial and gender barriers in the ’40’s and 50’s were daunting. Determined to earn an engineering degree, Montague attended what is now known as the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, graduating in 1956. Heading to D.C., the stellar student caught the attention of the Navy and began working for the military branch.
Her studious nature led her to learn how computers worked, advancing her past male colleagues from larger universities. In an interview, Montague revealed that she taught herself to drive while working for the Navy. While her colleagues thought her working late hours was a show of dedication to the job, the truth was she was learning how to drive on the go and didn’t want to do so in rush hour traffic.
For 14 years, Montague rose in the ranks and became a computer systems analyst at the Naval Ship Engineering Center. In 1970, though racist bosses in the Navy sneered at her accomplishments, they came to rely on her in a time of need. While at the department, an admiral brought a request from President Richard Nixon who wanted to get the jump on a ship design.
While the admiral said the Navy was given two months to complete the design, he charged her with getting the job done in one month. Montague finished the design in just over 18 hours.
Montague, who was married three times, retaining her second husband’s surname as he was the father of their son David, won the Navy’s Meritorious Civilian Service Award in 1972. Six years later, she earned the Manufacturing Engineers Achievement Award. Montague retired in 1990 and entered the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame in 2013.