Breaking Barriers, Part 1
The Raye Montague Story
Seven-year-old Raye Jordan gasped with excitement, her eyes wide with delight, as she held on tight to her grandfather's hand. She had never seen anything like the small German submarine before.
Captured off the coast of the Carolinas, it held just one sailor, it had been on a tour of the U.S. in 1942, and was now docked in her hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas.
Montague climbed the ladder and went down the hatch. She looked through the periscope, and examined the dials and mechanisms.
"What do you have to know to do this?" she asked the tour guide, fascinated.
"You'd have to be an engineer, but you don't ever have to worry about that," he replied.
"I didn't realize that I had been insulted," she said in an interview a lifetime later.
In 1935, Raye Jordan Montague had been born into a world of segregation, Jim Crow, poll taxes, separate lunch counters and backs of buses. Society, especially Southern society, expected her to be a wife, a mother and a maid, or, maybe, if she was lucky, a secretary or a teacher. She certainly wasn't expected, or even allowed, to be an engineer. In fact, the only engineering program in the state expressly forbade African-Americans - or, "Negros" as they were called then - from enrolling. As the tour guide had indicated, engineering was the preserve of white men.
He would be one of many to tell Montague that no, she couldn't do something, that her race or her sex made her less of a person, less smart, less talented. Like so many others, he didn't realize that he was challenging her, making her all the more determined to succeed.
"I asked my mother to take me to find out what was required to become an engineer, and she did: the math, the science and thinking outside the box," Montague remembered, calling her mother, Flossie Graves Jordan, the wind beneath her wings. "My mother told me, 'Raye, you'll have three strikes against you.' Now, remember I'm a little kid. She said, 'First, you're female and you're black ... and you have a southern, segregated school education. But you can do or be anything you want to be provided you're educated. ...
There's no such thing as women's work or men's work if you're educated.'"
Education was everything to Jordan, a single mother for much of Montague's childhood. She supported her daughter as first a teacher and then as a hairdresser. Montague actually spent a lot of time playing with white children. In the innocence of youth, she didn't even know she was different. She didn't understand the color of her skin mattered. She couldn't understand why they went to one school and she went to another.
Now in her 80s, Montague still remembers the day she realized that in Arkansas, the color of her skin did matter. It mattered very much: "My mother was very fair skinned with green eyes and red hair and she was listed as white on her driver's permit. She was not. ... At that time, black people sat from a certain point on the bus to the back of the bus. ... The bus was crowded. This white Soldier stood up and gave my mother his seat. My mother sat down in the white section and the bus driver drove off until my mother reached down and pulled me up on her lap. The bus driver stopped the bus and said, 'You get up and give that white woman your seat.' I thought I had done something wrong and hurt my mother so I started to cry. ... When we got off the bus, she told me that I hadn't done anything, but that was the law of the land at that time and the only way we could change that law was to be educated and to vote."