The Navy Banged On Her Door. What Happened Next Will Surprise You

Raye Montague Receiving Plaque/ Bill Tremper/US Navy/Public Domain

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In 1929, the Great Depression punched America in the face and didn’t stop punching until 1939.

But it hit Black folks even harder.

Years before the stock market crash of ‘29, Blacks were already living in despair. At the peak of the Depression, Black unemployment stood at 50% and those who had jobs could expect $5/week. That’s only $90/week (or $4,800/year) in today’s dollars.

So, it comes as no surprise that, as a Black girl born in Little Rock, AR in 1935, Raye Montague received a clear, familiar warning about the world from her mother:

“Raye, you'll have three strikes against you. You're Black and you're female and you'll have a southern segregated school education.”

Young Raye probably didn’t realize the seriousness of her mother’s warning – or that she would take this advice and make history.

Raye was a curious child. Despite the danger Black people faced in the South, she wasn’t afraid to explore and ask questions.

When touring a submarine exhibit with her grandfather, she marveled at the enormous vessels. Raye asked their guide how she could work on something like that one day.

The guide replied, “Oh, you’d have to be an engineer, but you don’t ever have to worry about that.”

Challenge accepted.

Years later, Raye applied to college, seeking an engineering degree. To her dismay, her first-choice school didn’t accept Black people. Unfortunately, racism had deferred her dream.

Raye ended up earning a business degree at the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, an HBCU near Little Rock.

Although she shifted gears, she kept her goal in sight.

Upon graduating, Raye landed a job as a typist at the U.S. Navy. In addition to her daily duties, she worked tirelessly, teaching herself both engineering and programming.

Her dedication paid off when she became a computer systems analyst at the Naval Ship Engineering Center in 1970.

Many of her white male co-workers grew furious with her accomplishment, and disrespected her by requesting she perform menial tasks like fetching coffee. Though hurtful, Raye never let that phase her.

Then, the White House called. President Nixon wanted the Navy to design a new ship using a computer. Computers were still new and had never been used in this capacity. To add even more pressure, Nixon only gave them two months to complete the task.

Despite Raye’s supervisors’ resentment towards her, they knew she was the only person for the job. However, they gave her one month to complete it, keeping the true deadline a secret.

Challenge accepted.

She successfully completed the job in less than 18 hours.

This accomplishment led to her becoming the first woman program manager of ships in the Navy - the equivalent of being the CEO of a company.

Raye Montague had three strikes against her, but she never struck out.

… if only we could see the look on that tour guide’s face when he got the news!

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