It was the year 1956 in Washington DC when a woman, Raye Montague, was getting ready to make history in the US Navy. An African-American woman from Arkansas, Montague knew the circumstances that she was born in. An America, that still struggled with racism and sexism, would not let this Southern Black woman’s dreams soar high.
Fascinated by submarines at a very young age, thanks to her grandfather who took her to see one off the coast of the Carolinas, Montague wanted to become an engineer who could work on these manmade beauties. Barred by society to pursue such a privileged education, Montague could not graduate in engineering. Although at 82 today, she stands as a registered engineer in the US and Canada.
“My mother told me when I was a very little girl, ‘Raye, you’ll have three strikes against you. You’re female and you’re Black and you’ll have a southern segregated school education,’” Montague recalled. “‘But you can be or do anything you want, provided you’re educated.’”
Having learnt engineering skills on the job as a clerk typist in the Navy in Washington DC, Montague also acquired computer skills by joining a night school. Her dedication and aptitude led her to design a naval ship on a computer program in just under 19 hours! A feat no other person could achieve, man or woman.
She reportedly told ABC News that the tag “first African-American” does not fit this feat, and instead she says she’d like to be known as the “first person” ever and nothing else.
Another example of African-American women making their mark in American history is portrayed in the Oscar-nominated “Hidden Figures”. It is a film that celebrates the groundbreaking success of three Black women who contribute to push the US space program to new heights.