Breaking Barriers, Part 2:
The Raye Montague Story
Raye Jordan Montague was breaking the rules. She wasn't supposed to use the computer.
She had been hired as a clerk-typist, GS 3, only two weeks earlier. She had a college degree in business, but that didn't matter much in 1956. As a woman, especially a black woman, she couldn't expect much more than a glorified secretarial job.
Still, it was a start, better than any opportunity Montague would have found back home in segregated Arkansas. She had never even seen a computer before, barely even heard of one, but now her duties included reading and comparing metallic data tapes from the cockpit-sized UNIVAC 1 computer at the David Taylor Model Basin in Carderock, Maryland, one of the largest ship model basins in the world.
A would-be engineer, Montague was fascinated by the computer, but she wasn't allowed to actually touch it.
"'Teach me how to use the computer,'" she asked the engineer who ran it. "He said, 'No. If I taught you how to operate the computer, you'd have my job.'
"Well," she said, "you can't let me stand there and watch somebody do something for a couple of weeks and think I'm not going to catch on to what they're doing."
When all of the engineers called in sick a couple of weeks after she started, Montague seized her chance.
"I mounted my tapes and I sat there and read them," she remembered. "I walked over to the computer and slowly but surely started to flip the switches. ... Slowly but surely I started to do my type ins and the tapes moved off. I could see my coworkers ... peeping around the corner. They went back and told my manager and he came out and I kept doing what I was doing."
"Raye," he said, "I didn't know you knew how to operate the computer."
"I don't," she answered.
"Well, what are you doing?"
"Well, I know how to do enough to get my job done."
"Fine. You know more than any of the rest of us here, so from now on, this is your job."
"I created every job I had after that," she laughed, explaining that she then had to teach the other civilians to work the computer. She quickly realized, however, that the men were suddenly making more money. When she asked her boss why she too hadn't been given a raise, he explained that her male colleagues had cars and could work the night shift. "He thought that was the end of it. He didn't know me that well."
Montague technically didn't have a driver's license, but she wasn't going to let a little technicality like that stop her. The next day, she bought a 1949 Pontiac for $375, then volunteered for the night shift.
"I'd leave home about 10:00 and I'd drive no-mile-an-hour," she said. "I'd get there for the midnight shift and I'd go 'phew' and I'd go in and work all night. And then, the next morning, people thought I was being so nice because I would hang around and help them mount their tapes and do the different things and laugh and talk with them. They thought that I was just being so kind. I'd hang around until about 9:30 for the traffic to let up."
Montague eventually got her promotion, and then another and another as she continued to work hard and develop her computer skills, eventually going to work for the Naval Sea Engineering Center.
"My new boss came about three days later, and he said, 'Hi. I've come to meet the new guy,'" she recalled, explaining that she never used a title and most people assumed she was a man. "I said, 'Hi. I'm Raye Montague,' and you always extend that hand and look them dead in the eye. ... I always kept that hand extended to force people to shake hands with me. ... His attitude was, 'Oh my God. Here I've got this black woman and didn't know it. How am I going to get rid of her?'"
Doing the Impossible
Her boss decided to give Montague an impossible task: The Navy had been trying to develop a computerized ship design program for six years with little success. Montague would have six months.
"She had to keep proving herself over and over that she could do the job, but she took that with a smile too and she was able to rise above those types of things," her coworker Trenita Russell said on "Good Morning America."
It all came down to hard work and determination. Montague met with the contractors responsible for the program, then "I'd work all day and come back at 7:30 at night and fire up the system, tear it apart," she remembered. "You can't do that during the day when people are waiting to get on the computer. I'd work until midnight and then go home and go to sleep and come back and work the next day. I never charged them a dime extra."
A couple of weeks later, Montague's boss caught wind of her nighttime activities, telling her, "Raye, you're not allowed to come in here and work alone at night."
It was just one more barrier to the woman who had been forbidden to attend the only engineering program in her home state of Arkansas and then became an engineer anyway. She started bringing her 3-year-old son, David, and her mother, Flossie, in with her at night. While her mother sat in the corner and worked on crosswords, Montague taught her son how to program the computer.
"Raye, why are you bringing your mother and son in here?" her boss asked a week later.
"You said I couldn't work alone at night," she answered. "I'm not alone."
Her boss gave in. He gave her a staff, and she got the ship specification system to work on schedule. Then he told her not to worry about ever using it. No one had ever expected her to succeed and no one had any idea what to actually do with it. "It was supposed to be an impossible task," she said. "I go back to my desk and I'm mad as all get out."
She didn't let her disappointment and anger show, however. She never did.
"You must be able to withstand a lot of the ridicule, the negative stuff that you run into," she advised. "You never let them know when they've got you down. I would come into work every morning, and they'd say, 'Raye, how are you today?' And I'd say, 'I'm great.' ... Sometimes I used to go down to my car and cry like a baby, but they never knew it. I'd come back, smile sweetly. ... My attitude was, 'I'll get you. I'll make you realize that I'm strong, I'm knowledgeable and I can run circles around you, and you don't have to give me a chance. I'll make my own chance.'"