The 2016 drama Hidden Figures really opened a lot of American eyes to a side of history that for a long time remained untold, that women — specifically, Black women — were behind some of the historic technological achievements of the previous century. This particular film (based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly) tells the true story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson and their integral role in launching John Glenn into outer space, making him the third American to do so, and the first to orbit the Earth. Too often, the story of the Space Race highlights only the likes of Glenn, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, neglecting the other heroes of the moment, concealed behind a curtain. 

 

But the eyes of many Arkansans may not know of our own hidden figure, the late Raye Montague, who was just as essential to the U.S. Navy as Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson were to NASA. Her incredible journey is recounted in the recently released biography, Overnight Code: The Life of Raye Montague, The Woman Who Revolutionized Naval Engineering, co-authored by Paige Bowers and Raye’s son, Dr. David Montague. 

 

***

Raye in her office.

She lived a full life, one of personal accomplishment but also one where she inspired others to live beyond the expectations they had for themselves or that others had for them. She saw herself as just one of many to do this work, and in her final years told everyone that despite her declining health, God kept her here for a reason: to inspire as many people as she could. This became more difficult for her as time wore on, but she once told me that she wanted to leave this world doing what made her happy. She found it a pleasure and an honor, and it gave her real purpose. 

 

She was amazed that she had the opportunity to touch lives on such a grand scale. I can still hear her say, “Can you believe it? This is really happening.” Everything in her life had come together, and I’m glad that she took advantage of the opportunity to spread her message globally in her final years and that so many people made that possible for her. Now, her fight is done, and she literally gave it her all. 

 

Yes, she was an internationally recognized engineer who revolutionized the way the US Navy designed ships. But she was also a little girl from Little Rock, and my mother, too. This is her story. May it plant a seed in your mind and heart.

 

Raye and a colleague working at a computer.

David Montague’s foreword; taken from Overnight Code by Paige Bowers and David Montague, published by Chicago Review Press, 2021, www.chicagoreviewpress.com.

 

***

 

Practically every homegrown license plate seen on the streets of Arkansas today is fitted with the nickname: “The Natural State.” It’s a simple combination of three words that represent so much of the fabric that makes the state a special place to live for its citizens and a surprising oasis to visit for tourists across the country. Naturally speaking, Arkansas is a state that has it all: the flatlands of the Delta mixed with the rolling hills and mountainous terrain of the Ozarks; plenty of rivers run through us, and just as plentiful are the lakes and ponds; trekkable caverns plunge deep beneath the surface, littered with ancient stalactite decorations. 

 

But throughout much of Raye Montague’s (née Jordan) upbringing — first in Little Rock, then in Pine Bluff — the state was officially known as “The Land of Opportunity.” Contrasted against “The Natural State,” this motto erected in the mid-1900s was far more inspirational, but, for people who looked like Raye, much further from the truth. 

Raye speaking at a school in Maryland.

As is reported brilliantly in Overnight Code, Raye lived through some of the most history-rich but socially tumultuous times in our nation’s history. Born in 1935, as soon as she was able to comprehend the world around her, that world was amid the catastrophic destruction of World War II. (In fact, one of her earliest and most vivid memories would be visiting the WWII Imperial Japanese submarine, HA-19, in Little Rock. Seeing it, and learning about the engineering that crafted it, fueled her fire to become an engineer and ultimately led her to the Navy.) Like the war, many of her greatest achievements were, both in her life and as told in the book, set against the backdrop of some of the country’s most memorable moments. She lived through Jim Crow, segregation and integration, but also witnessed Martin Luther King Jr.’s passion for change and lived within the civil rights era when much of that came to fruition. She was working in Washington, D.C., when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, as well as during the Watergate scandal. 

 

Despite the consistent plight of the world around her, she became a trailblazer, constantly shattering glass ceiling after glass ceiling. Most notably, she is now credited with creating the first computer-generated naval ship in United States history (earning her a Meritorious Civilian Service Award), which she remarkably created in 19 hours despite it being a one-month assignment. And, she was the first female program manager of ships in the Navy. This, while living a life encapsulating the very definition of “self-made.” She was barred from attending the University of Arkansas, in Fayetteville, where she might have studied her dream vocation of engineering; instead, she attended Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical & Normal College (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff) and graduated with a B.S. in business. When she encountered her first opportunities with the Navy, she had to quite literally, “fake it” to “make it,” teaching herself as she went the ins and outs of some of the world’s first computers without the education and experience of the Ivy Leaguers around her, eavesdropping her way into learning how to do the jobs of the men above her until her moments arose. When they did, she took advantage of them. 

 

Despite the obstacles that were more often in front of her path than most people, she never faltered — plugging and learning and working her way through it all, sometimes having to brute force her way through the slenderest of cracks in the doorway. And even as she made history — the first for this and the first for that — a true appreciation for her merits and achievements would not come until much, much later in her life. 

 

As worthwhile her story is of being told in any medium, this recent telling via the biography almost didn’t happen. According to her son, David, people urged Raye for years to write a book detailing her life story. But just as soon as she’d come around to the idea of a memoir, her physical journey on this humble rock came to an end. Raye passed away on Oct. 10, 2018, at the age of 83. 

 

***

Raye receiving a Society of Manufacturing Engineers Award.

Raye’s teachers understood that they needed to go beyond the average expectation of teachers to reverse this disturbing trend. That’s not to say that their work could rid Pine Bluff of racism, but it definitely went a long way toward showing a generation of Black children that they could overcome it by dreaming big, working hard, and never giving up. 

 

Raye said that it was hard to remember that advice from time to time. On her first day at Merrill, she remembered walking into a classroom where it seemed like nearly all the desks were taken. She walked to one girl and asked her if the seat near her was taken. The girl pointed across the room and said, “There is an empty desk over there.” 

 

Every day Raye walked past the White high school and elementary school to get to Merrill. She was a chubby youngster who only fit in adult clothing, she said, and because of that she didn’t have as many outfits as other girls did because of the cost it took to dress her. She was self-conscious as a result, and said she often felt bad when she heard other girls whispering about her wearing “that same green dress again.” She was also younger than most of her classmates. And the only time she saw these other Black children was when she was at school. 

 

“My family didn’t have a car, so when I walked home, I never saw another Black child until I went to school the following day,” Raye said. “I was an outsider. No one came to see me unless my mother had a  party for me.” 

 

However, Raye eventually befriended some of the White children in her neighborhood. “We would head down into Pine Bluff and go to eat lunch together, but White people and Black people could only sit on opposite sides of the lunch counter,” Raye said. “So we’d do that, and we’d talk to each other across the counter and the waiters would walk between us. We were integrating things then whether they knew it or not.” 

 

But not all of the White children were welcoming and open. Raye recalled passing by some White kids in downtown Pine Bluff who told her to go back to her own country, which she took to mean Africa.

 

Taken from Overnight Code by Paige Bowers and David Montague, published by Chicago Review Press, 2021, www.chicagoreviewpress.com.

 

***

Raye tells her story on GMA with Janelle Monáe and Robin Roberts.

In February 2017, just a few weeks after her 82nd birthday, Raye was invited to ABC’s Good Morning America (GMA) to share her story with the country. Show co-host Robin Roberts interviewed her for the 10-minute long segment, which brought the audience at home and in the studio to tears. Surprising Raye, Janelle Monáe, who played Mary Jackson in the film Hidden Figures, visited her on the set. After that, David says that the interest surrounding her hypothetical book started to intensify. 

 

“She kept saying, ‘There are a lot of people that have great careers, and I don’t know if people are really going to be interested in something like that,” David recalls. “But then people would say, ‘You really have an interest in just trying to motivate and help and inspire people, generally, with your career story. But also, what about the other things you’ve had to overcome that connected with your career, but were about you as a person?’ After the Good Morning America interview, that’s when I think she started to take those comments much more seriously.

 

“That’s always been a huge passion for her, is for people being able to overcome obstacles and achieve their dreams. She just considered herself a vessel for helping spread that message.”

 

As fate would have it, David explains, a literary agent from New York was among those watching GMA on that inspiring February morning. That quickly turned into a connection between the agent and David, propelling Raye’s book from mere aspiration to reality. But it was also around this time that Raye’s health began to deteriorate, so David promised to help his mother with this endeavor. But she passed away amid the early stages, so it would not be a memoir — instead, a biography. 

 

“One of the last things my mother told me is that she wanted me to finish the book, and made me promise to finish it,” David says, fighting through the words as tears begin to form in his eyes. “So I did. I told her whatever she wanted, we would get it done.”

 

***

 

Raye said she pursued a business degree instead of a math or science degree because that was what her school counselor advised. When asked why her counselor steered her in this direction, Raye said, “I don’t know. That’s just what they said to do.” David Montague said that his mother told him that she followed the advice because if she couldn’t work in the hard sciences, she wanted to be able to work in a field that could be just as exacting. Raye’s mother and aunt Gladys were both entrepreneurs, so she believed she could become one too. As a backup plan, she obtained a secondary education license, “because everyone who graduated from college had one.” It wasn’t necessarily what she wanted to do, she admitted. But Raye knew there were opportunities for young Black women to become teachers, and she wanted to be sure she had options. Raye believed in having options, after all. On the bottom of a school transcript, she imagined what her future might look like if she wound up teaching. “I am best qualified to teach Business Education, Arts and Crafts, Psychology, and History Courses,” she wrote, pointing to the classes in which she had some of her best grades. She made no mention of teaching math and science, perhaps because she harbored grander ideas and aspirations for herself in those fields, regardless of the degree she would ultimately earn. 

 

As pragmatic as Raye tried to be about being steered away from her fields of interest, deep down she had to be frustrated. She grew up being told that she could do or be anything she wanted to be, and now a perfect stranger was steering her away from a future in science and math. Granted, college is often an adjustment for anyone, even stellar achievers like Raye. But in the beginning, so much felt beyond her control. Her stepfather had died, her mother was struggling to send her to school, and her boyfriend was living out of state. As much as she loved to learn new things, it’s easy to see how Raye could have been distracted, overwhelmed, and even frustrated.

 

Taken from Overnight Code by Paige Bowers and David Montague, published by Chicago Review Press, 2021, www.chicagoreviewpress.com.

 

***

 

As she told it on GMA, even Monáe — who brought a hidden figure back to life on the big screen — did not at first know the true history behind these women, or the “colored computers” as they were less than affectionately referred to at the time. 

 

The same was true for Overnight Code’s co-author Paige Bowers, at least of Raye herself. Bowers was familiar with the Hidden Figures story but would not come to know about Raye until after her agent (the same who was moved to calling David after GMA) connected her with the Montagues. 

 

At first, Bowers was to join David in providing Raye assistance in crafting her memoir — David had written a textbook, but never something like this; Bowers is an accomplished and polished writer, her byline appearing in the likes of TIME, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and  People. But after Raye’s death, Bowers was thrust into the primary author’s seat. 

 

“She had experience in really digging and asking questions and telling stories,” David says of his co-author. “She’s really great. She just jumps right on everything. So we formed a really good partnership.” 

 

As the pair began to plunge headfirst into the depths of Raye’s life, each began to feel a sense of surprise at what was found — even David, who had known his mother his entire life. 

 

For him, a new perspective and even greater appreciation for his mom arose. Part of that journey of his began at her funeral, when countless people showed up to celebrate her life. Of those, many did not even realize that Raye was a hidden figure; she had simply touched them or helped them in some way, or guided them along their own path years before. He quickly began to learn that to most of the people she encountered in her life, she was just Raye — a biological mother to David, but a spiritual mother to too many to count. 

 

One of the most incredible things David found along the way was that his mother used to write obituaries for people when they’d lost a loved one — hundreds of them, as a matter of fact. Back in this time period, most people didn’t have access to a computer, let alone a printer, and Raye knew that she was blessed to have plenty of access to both through her job. She received no notoriety or awards or morning television specials from this act of kindness, nor would she have accepted it. 

 

“That was just something she considered her form of service to help people in a time of need,” David says. 

 

***

Raye’s college graduation photo. (1956)

Then Raye addressed a subject that was taboo for its time: mental health. “Your emotional strength peaks at approximately age twenty-six, as does your physical strength if you keep in good shape,” she told her audience. “But while demands on your physical strength diminish after age twenty-six, the demands  on your emotional strength usually increase. If you are not careful, the emotional demand line and your emotional strength line may cross. If that happens, the emotional overload will cause you to collapse.” 

 

Aside from the stress and strain in the workplace, there were the quieter challenges at home: The husbands. The son, frail at birth, who grew into an accomplished young man. The neighbors she had to win over because they thought single women were a recipe for trouble. Trying to be a good worker, boss, mother, daughter, friend, girlfriend, neighbor, while keeping a smile on her face as she did the work of showing up, day in and day out. She could go out dancing or play bridge and forget about some of her troubles, at least for a moment. But Raye knew that some things just lingered, and it was important to address those before they brought you to your knees. 

 

Taken from Overnight Code by Paige Bowers and David Montague, published by Chicago Review Press, 2021, www.chicagoreviewpress.com.

 

***

Raye’s portrait as the U.S. Navy’s deputy program manager of ships.

For Bowers, the project was just as influential. 

 

“It impacted my life in a lot of different ways,” she says. “Speaking specifically to the gender part of this, I think it’s shown how much harder women have had to work — they have to work twice as hard to get as far as a man. And while we’ve made gains in some respects, there’s still a long way to go. To see what Raye Montague had to fight against as a woman, and even more than that a woman of color, it gives you a great appreciation for her and for women who continue to fight against expectations of what we should or shouldn’t be doing.”

 

As it relates to this, one particular moment from the book stands out. In the ’60s, Raye found herself amid ferment at home and at work. Not only dealing with the societal barriers of the time, she was also going through a divorce from her first husband. But, she would not let this vulnerability show around anyone other than her mother. She had to force an exterior of strength and capability — unemotional. Disconcertingly, many women today still feel this same struggle. 

 

“She went back to the Navy to speak later in her life, and she acknowledged the progress that had been made, putting women on equal footing,” Bowers says. “And yet there were still women at the talk who came up to her and said, ‘Yeah, but these are things that are still going on.’ And so, maybe it’s a couple steps forward and one step back. Progress isn’t always forward, sometimes it kind of veers off to the side, takes a u-turn, gets back on track. Specifically, with race, we see that.”

 

David echoes a lot of that sentiment, himself having dealt with both “overt and covert” discrimination during his life, sharing that his mother would often tell children, “Don’t assume that just because the calendar moves forward, that people’s ideas move forward.” 

 

And just because she was judged throughout her life, she wouldn’t retaliate or become jaded with the same bigotry. 

 

“She told me, ‘I don’t pass judgment on people — where they’re from, their nationality, what language is their primary language, what their orientation is, what religion they are,’” David goes on to say. “She said, ‘At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. What matters is: What do we need to do to work together, to be together and survive together?’”

 

David also notes that working on the book has been a healing process for him, a remedy to soften the blow of grief that hit him whenever Raye passed away. And what a right hook that loss was. Growing up, David’s father was out of the picture more than he was in it. So his mom occupied the place of both parents in him, so to speak. Losing her might have felt like a two-in-one loss, creating a void as larger than life as her legacy. 

Raye receiving the Meritorious Civilian Service Award with her son, David. (1972)

“One of the most amazing things I learned going through this … is she had all these different strikes against her, but she never saw that as a reason not to want to help anyone,” David says. “Now, she never forgot what people did to her, but she always used whatever opportunity she had to provide a step forward for someone else. I think that’s something that I learned from her over the years; I try to do the same thing. But it didn’t come to such a point of clarity for me — the scope of which she did this — until we started writing the book.”

 

Over the years, David has come to carry the family name just as well as his mother did, a credit to how he was raised — which he will be the first to preface. He earned his undergraduate degree at Morehouse College, master’s at George Washington University and his Ph.D. at Howard University. Currently, he serves as the Executive Director of Online Learning and Faculty Mentoring at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, as well as a tenured professor of criminal justice. Previously, he spent more than a decade with the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and served as senior investigator on the United States JFK Assassination Records Review Board. He also volunteers as a reserve police officer in Bryant. 

 

“She wanted me to feel like I could be anything I wanted to be, as long as I’m qualified for it, and I’m willing to work toward it and put the effort in,” David says. “That’s something that my mother instilled in me, is to just keep pushing and pushing. Don’t ever just try to do the status quo — go above and beyond at whatever you do.”

 

***

Human beings do the best they can, and the results are rarely perfect. Raye was one for likening life to a boxing ring. She said everyone gets knocked down from time to time. You should never be surprised by that, but you should always be prepared to get back up when you hit the ground. 

 

“If you refuse to lose, then you become very difficult to defeat,” she said. “On the other hand, the first time you accept defeat, you become a loser. You cannot become a loser until you decide to quit trying. If you are not really trying to be all you can be . . . you can change that. The key question is whether you will do it. It is your choice.” 

 

All her life, Raye chose to keep getting back up, no matter how hard she got hit. Later in her career, she wanted others to see that if she could get back up, they could too. By sharing her story, she was cultivating another generation of people who would share her resiliency and then nurture it in others.

 

Taken from Overnight Code by Paige Bowers and David Montague, published by Chicago Review Press, 2021, www.chicagoreviewpress.com.

 

***

David Montague.

The most impressive part that makes Overnight Code an honorable tribute to such an extraordinary figure is its balancing act. Sometimes, when we hear stories about past or present figures who moved the societal needle, their legacies become based on that one-dimensional aspect. Think of Rosa Parks, Susan B. Anthony, or, another close-to-home example for Arkansans, Dorothy Shaver. As time passes and memories fade, such instrumental figures can lose their personhood, known only for that one thing you remember about them. But in telling Raye’s story in such a thorough way — Bowers using her skills as a journalist, interviewing and digging deeper; David channeling his former practices as a federal investigator for the DEA, probing and searching for more, leaving no stone unturned — the duo perfectly captures everything that Raye was, both personally and professionally, and lay it out in black and white; forever bounded and published, ensuring her true legacy. So that every part of her journey, every dimension of her, would continue to have breath, not just the top line of her Wikipedia page as the “first” for her many achievements. Rather, a single mother who navigated three divorces; a friend to many and family to more, even beyond her blood relatives; a motivation for anyone she came in contact with; a fierce competitor but a nurturing presence; a big dreamer with an even larger work ethic, two dangerous assets for anyone or anything in her way. 

 

***

 

“The United States flag was flown over the nation’s Capitol and presented to me at my retirement with a certificate from the architect of the Capitol saying that the flag was flown in my honor. Can you imagine that, from a grateful nation? A little girl from Little Rock?” 

 

Raye Montague to Robin Roberts on GMA

Paige Bowers.

***

 

After reading, and reading again, the pages of her biography, one arrives at a conundrum of a crossroad: there was both no one like her and yet so many like her. She was original in triumph and spirit, but faced some of the same hurdles that thousands before and after her have encountered. How she handled them — the grace, the tenacity — was exemplary; Raye was a definitive inspiration for all. 

 

In Bowers’ mind, Overnight Code is, above all, a story about overcoming obstacles and the power of a mother’s love, all wrapped up in this figure who was, for too long, hidden. But not anymore. 

 

Like Monáe told Raye on Good Morning America in 2017, “You are an American hero. And you are hidden no more.” 

 

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