A friend once asked me why I loved history. I replied that there was always something to learn and that the history we learn in school is a fraction of the information that can be found regarding humanity’s evolution. When I saw the title of this book, I paused instantly and decided to investigate further. A brief synopsis on Amazon told me what I needed to know: there was an important story within that I did not previously know. My intuition was correct, and I felt a sense of shame at not knowing who the late Raye Montague (1935-2018) was and what she accomplished during her time working for the U.S. Government. This book by Paige Owens and Montague’s son David, sets the record straight and ensures that her story will never be lost to history.
The story begins in Arkansas where Raye is born during the dark Jim Crow era in America. The descriptions of life for blacks in the South are exactly what you would expect to find of that era. And reading what life was like in America is still disturbing. But it is also a testament to the strength to be found in the people who moved forward in life despite their difficult origins. Montague’s story is typical for a Black American at that time, but it changes when she goes to work for Uncle Sam. She found herself in a brand-new environment with a young son she was raising as a single mother. Her trials and tribulations in the dating and marriage markets are discussed throughout the story and what we learn is surreal. But Montague never lets her personal life interfere with her professional life, and even goes to extreme lengths to keep her career going. However, she had to confront two obstacles in the forms of racism and sexism. As a black woman, she stepped into a world dominated by white men. And though she lacked the training they had been afforded, she learned on the job and by chance, is given an opportunity to work on the computers when the main engineers are unavailable. Her supervisor took notice and her life changed permanently.
To say that she accomplished incredible feats would be an understatement. Frankly, she embodies the concept of determination. And her uncanny intelligence is on full display and what she accomplished is amazing. Some of her awards are mentioned as the story progresses but after the book’s conclusion, a full list of her awards is provided, along with photos of Montague and her family. She was nothing short of brilliant. Yet despite her talent, knowledge, and ability to socialize anywhere, opposition to her advancement remained an issue throughout her entire career. She speaks frankly on the issues in the story but never speaks ill of anyone. I am sure she kept many grievances close to the chest as we say, but never lost sight of her goal to be the best engineer in her department. She reached that goal when she generated the first computer designed blueprint for a United States Naval vessel.
There are both antagonists and protagonists in the book. Her guardian angel comes in the form of Wallace “Wally” Dietrich whose guidance helps push her career forward. But there were also detractors, surprised to see a black woman as a peer. But to be fair, there are no acts of violence towards her, and she did form close relationships with co-workers both black and white. And through her hard work and perseverance, she was opening doors for women following her lead. Her personal struggles are the dark side of the book, and I could not believe what she went through in multiple marriages. But her son David was always her priority and she never wavered in making sure he was well taken care of. Today he continues to keep his mother’s legacy alive.
After I finished the book, I took a moment to think about everything I read. And I realized that this book is a perfect example of why history is important. The adage is true; if we want to know where we are going, we must know from where we came.
“I was put here for a reason,” she said. “That reason is to open doors for other people.” – Raye Montague
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