Julius Montgomery: The first Black technician to work at pre-NASA aeronautical station Cape Canaveral

BY Ben Ebuka Oji February 22, 2024 6:13 AM EDT
Julius Montgomery
Julius Montgomery: The first African American technical professional to work at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the first African American student to enter Brevard Engineering College.

Among the heroic African-American pioneers who triumphed over structural and professional adversities to chalk a first is Julius Montgomery, the first African American technical professional to work at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Before the establishment of NASA in 1958, much of the research and development that formed the foundation for the U.S. space program occurred at military institutions like Cape Canaveral.

Montgomery earned a bachelor’s degree in 1951 from Tuskegee Institute, presently recognized as Tuskegee University. Subsequently, he joined the United States Air Force and diligently served for four and a half years, acquiring a first-class radio license, a notable achievement that enabled him to work as a radio station engineer in Mobile. Notably, during that era, well-paying jobs in Alabama were exceedingly scarce for African American professionals.

Nevertheless, Montgomery defied the odds and applied for an electronics technician position at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Montgomery successfully cleared the entrance examination and secured the position with a starting salary of $96 per week. The new job resulted in his relocation to Florida in 1956.

At Cape Canaveral, African Americans were limited to non-technical roles, such as custodial work, which further highlighted the prevailing discrimination. As expected, at the time Montgomery resumed his duty, racism was deeply ingrained in central Florida, as it was unfortunately the case in numerous workplaces across the nation.

The initial day at Cape Canaveral was a challenging one for Montgomery, as he faced the disheartening reality of being ignored by many of his white colleagues after introducing himself.

 “Nobody would shake my hand,” he recalled.

Nevertheless, Montgomery remained undeterred by the negative treatment from his coworkers. He dedicated himself to his responsibilities, frequently utilizing his audacious sense of humor to ease tensions in the workplace. He continued to endure persistent racism throughout the years. However, his mere presence was the invaluable key that unlocked opportunities for a more diverse workforce in the space program.

The primary responsibility of Montgomery was to carry out repair tasks as a member of a team dedicated to fixing faulty ballistic missiles at Cape Canaveral. After the launch of test missiles, these skilled technicians, known as “range rats,” would carefully analyze the wreckage at the testing range to identify the cause of the malfunction and subsequently restore any damaged electronic systems. Additionally, range rats would work on the sea to conduct maintenance on satellite equipment and diligently monitor the airspace for any signs of Soviet Union activity.

Furthermore, Montgomery’s team was responsible for designing and constructing circuits for the missiles and rockets tested at Cape Canaveral. A significant portion of their duties was tailor-made, as the necessary components for the advanced ballistic technologies were not readily accessible in the commercial market.

Another “first” for Montgomery

A few years later, Montgomery achieved another historic milestone, but not without the usual systemic barrier.

In 1958, Montgomery, along with other employees, mainly engineers, and technicians at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, enrolled in courses at Brevard Engineering College, a newly established educational institution created by senior members of the space program to offer advanced education for professionals working at the station. However, since a permanent campus location wasn’t available, the program was conducted in classroom facilities at a nearby public junior high school.

Unfortunately, when the superintendent of schools in Brevard County discovered that Montgomery was among the attendees, he threatened to suspend the college unless Montgomery was barred from joining the classes. However, after receiving reassurance from the college’s president, Dr. Jerome P. Keuper, that he would be admitted once the school secured a permanent place, Montgomery withdrew his application to enable the college to resume.

Three years later, the school relocated to a permanent building, and Montgomery was admitted into the program, thus becoming the first African American student to enter Brevard Engineering College, which eventually became the Florida Institute of Technology (FIT). Ultimately, Montgomery’s sacrifice gave life to the Florida Institute of Technology.

Retiring with accomplishments

After more than three decades of fruitful and historic service, Montgomery retired in 1988. But not without an honorary doctorate in humane letters from the Florida Institute of Technology.

Years later, Montgomery started a general contracting service and contributed to several panel discussions organized by the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

Montgomery, who lived until the age of 90, sadly passed away on January 22, 2020. However, his immense impact on FIT is remembered annually through the Julius Montgomery Pioneer Award for community service, first presented in 2007.

Julius Montgomery, the first African American to work as a technical professional at the Cape Canaveral station, will always be commemorated as a trailblazer who shattered barriers for the contemporary Black community and future generations.