Retired engineer Raye Jean Montague discussed her life story Thursday at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff of overcoming racial and gender discrimination on the way to achieving her dream.

Retired engineer Raye Jean Montague discussed her life story Thursday at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff of overcoming racial and gender discrimination on the way to achieving her dream.


When she was a 7-year-old girl, America captured a German submarine off the coast of South Carolina. She visited the submarine and became fascinated with the vessel and asked what kind of profession a person needed to have to work in maritime vessels. A man who worked at the place where the German submarine was being showcased told her she would have to be an engineer, but not to worry about such aspirations.


"I grew up in an era of segregation and I was told by many people I could not do a lot of things," Montague said. "I had three strikes against me. I was female, black and growing up in the segregated South.


"When I graduated from high school in 1952, I was not accepted into any school that offered an engineering degree. Minorities were not accepted at the time."


Undaunted, Montague enrolled at Arkansas AM&N (present-day University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff) and graduated in 1956 with a degree in business. Arkansas AM&N did not offer black female students an opportunity to earn a degree in engineering in the 1950s.


As a new college graduate, Montague said she moved to Washington, D.C., and began a career during which she broke through many glass ceilings. She said that she worked harder than many male colleagues but was denied the same opportunities for advancement, promotions and recognition. Conversely, she said that her name was an asset in the sense that employers assumed that she was a male and hired her based on her resume.


"The first person to call me in for an interview was the Navy," Montague said. "They looked at my transcript and they said ‘you’ll know all about computers.’ I had never seen a computer because Arkansas did not have computers in 1956."


But she taught herself to use a computer, learned programming codes and from there used those skills to design ships. Many of her colleagues had graduated from Yale University and Harvard University, including people who had worked on the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb.


"I bought a car to work the night shift at the U.S. Navy in Maryland," Montague said. "I did not know how to drive. I worked from midnight until 8 a.m. and taught myself to drive. I stayed until 9:30 a.m. and people thought I was just being nice. [The real reason is] I wanted to avoid rush-hour traffic while learning how to drive."


Montague said some managers were blatantly sexist and others were racist.


"One manager said, ‘you have the right name but the wrong sex,’" Montague said. "’I wish the guys worked as hard as you do. But I cannot stand women in management positions but I hope you stay here.’ I told him, ‘you bet I am leaving.’"


Montague became a computer systems analyst at the Naval Ship Engineering Center and served as the program director for the Naval Sea Systems Command. She earned the U.S. Navy’s Meritorious Civilian Service Award in 1972, the Society of Manufacturing Engineers Achievement Award in 1978. She retired in 1990 and was elected into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame in 2013.


Montague said she revised the first automated system for selecting and printing ship specifications and produced the first draft for the FFG-7 frigate in 18 hours.


Montague laughed while discussing managers who treated her differently than her male colleagues. One boss told her she could not work on equipment by herself so she brought her 3-year-old son and mother to her office.


"You gave me what you thought was an impossible task," Montague said. "I was ticked off, but I did not used that term at the time."


After being nominated for an award by the secretary of the Navy, Montague said someone threatened to kill her.


"My life was threatened. Death threats were real," Montague said. "A white man asked me not to accept the award because a white woman had not received the award. I told him I am accepting this award."


Montague said she loves meeting with young pe0ple, to share her story of overcoming discrimination.


"God sends you what you need," she said. "People put obstacles in your way. You find a way to achieve despite the system not because of the system."


An estimated 250 people came to UAPB’s Science/Technology/Engineering/Mathematics Building to hear Montague share her story. The 2015 Lyceum Committee and UAPB spokeswoman Tisha Arnold thanked Montague for sharing her inspiring true story, for being a pioneer and a living legend.