Pioneer on the US space programme

Born: May 30, 1929;

Died: January 22, 2020.

JULIUS Montgomery, who has died aged 90, was a pioneering technician at the Cape Canaveral space facility in the US – pioneering because he was the first black professional to be employed at the site at a time, in the 1950s, when racism was deeply embedded in American society.

The obstacles Montgomery faced in securing the job at Cape Canaveral were considerable. In Florida, where the facility is based, education and public places were strictly segregated by race and the Ku Klux Klan occupied many of the most important political positions in the state. Lynchings were also common.

The racism did not end there. Even after Montgomery was employed by Cape Canaveral as a technician repairing ballistic missiles, he initially faced racism within the organisation, too.

On his first day, many of his white colleagues refused to shake his hand, although Montgomery used humour to overcome their resistance. “I said, ‘Look, I’m part of the educational program to train you guys to act like people’,” he said. “‘You’ve been acting like rednecks all your life. You need retraining’”.

It was not the last time he would overcome the obstacles black people faced in 1950s and 1960s America. In 1969, he became the first African-American ever to win a seat on the council in the Florida city of Melbourne, after 13 years of trying. He was also the first black student at what is now the Florida Institute of Technology, having initially encountered resistance from the educational authorities.

Montgomery sometimes credited the confidence he had in tackling racism with overcoming a stutter when he was a boy. Born in Alabama, he was the oldest of 12 children of Edward and Queen Ester Montgomery. Initially, his stutter meant that he was sometimes isolated, but he worked hard to eliminate it and he attended the Tuskegee Institute, a historically black institution, where he studied to be a linotype operator in the printing business.

After graduating in the early 1950s, he worked in printing for a time before joining the US Air Force in 1956, where he was a technician in the facilities that receive the signals from spy satellites. He then worked as an engineer at a radio station. He applied for other jobs but time and again was told that black people were not welcome.

One of the places he applied to was the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) at Cape Canaveral and, after passing the entry tests, he was taken on as an electronics technician in the development lab. The technicians, known as “range rats,” were responsible for repairing malfunctioning ballistic missiles. If a missile misfired, the men would head down to the range, work out what went wrong, and fix it.

Montgomery’s employment at RCA made him the first ever black technical professional to be employed at Cape Canaveral but his first days there were not easy. He recalled walking into the lab and being met by a roomful of white men, each of whom turned away from him when he offered his hand.

“Nobody would shake my hand. I got to the last fellow and I said ‘Hello, I’m Julius Montgomery.’ He said, ‘Look boy, that’s no way to talk to a white man.’ I said, ‘Ah, forgive me, oh great, white b-----d. What should I call you?’ And I laughed, and he laughed and he shook my hand.”

There was other racism to overcome after that. At the end of the 1950s, one of Montgomery’s colleagues suggested establishing an institute to keep the workers up to date on developments in engineering, and rented rooms in a high school. Montgomery was one of the first to sign up but the local superintendent of schools said he would not allow him to take part and threatened to shut the college down.

It was Montgomery’s selflessness that saved the project. He withdrew his application so the college could open, although its president promised him there would be a place for him as soon as the college secured its own premises. Three years later, in 1961, the college did find its own facilities and he was admitted.

The college, now the Florida Institute of Technology, has always acknowledged it would not exist had it not been for Montgomery’s sacrifice and in 2006, it honoured him with the first Julius Montgomery Pioneer Award, which is presented to people to mark their contribution to their community. He received an honorary doctorate from the institute days before his death.

After retiring from RCA in 1988, he was involved in campaigning and for a time was a leading figure in the civil rights organisation, NAACP. He also spoke about his career at events around the US.

His wife, Gertrude King, who worked as an accountant for Pan American Airways, died in 2003. He is survived by his daughters, Gaye and Lisa Montgomery.