Raye Montague, 1935–2018
The warship designer who shattered racial and gender barriers
In 1971, Navy engineer Raye Montague was handed a seemingly impossible task: to design a warship in one month. It typically took two years to produce a rough draft on paper, but the Vietnam War was raging and President Nixon wanted the Navy to churn out vessels at a faster clip. So Montague started up a computer program that she had designed, and 18 hours and 26 minutes later, the specifications for the frigate were complete. It was a triumph for the African-American engineer, who had battled discrimination her entire career. “I had to run circles around people” in the Navy, she said. “But when they found out I really knew what I was talking about, they came to respect me.”
Born in Little Rock, Ark., Montague was told as a child by her mother that because she was black and female, the odds were stacked against her, said The New York Times. But, she said her mom added, “You can be or do anything you want, provided you’re educated.” Determined to be an engineer, Montague studied business in college, then headed to Washington and took a job with the Navy as a clerk-typist. She worked her way up, and when a male colleague wouldn’t teach her how to operate a computer, Montague taught herself.
She became the Navy’s “first female program manager of ships,” said the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and its “foremost expert on computer-aided design.” Montague retired in 1990 but kept busy, working for civic organizations and mentoring young people in Little Rock. “Her message,” said her son, David, “was always the same: ‘Don’t let people put obstacles in front of you, but understand you also have to put in the work.’”