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Cryptologic Pioneers: The African American Experience

African Americans in Cryptologic History

View the African American Honorees

The experience of African Americans at NSA and its predecessor organization mirrors the African American experience in the United States and the Federal Government in the latter half of the twentieth century.

The first African American hired by the Army Security Agency, and who later made the transition to the Armed Forces Security Agency, worked first in a segregated office. Senior supervisors were white and many of the duties were menial ones not wanted by whites.

In the 1950s, African Americans began to move into the mainstream workforce. The segregated office was abolished and more African Americans received supervisory positions.

Many African Americans advanced to NSA's senior ranks. Many of those who began their careers in the segregated work environment finished at the top of their profession.

For many years, it was believed that African Americans had first been hired to work in cryptology only after World War II. Recent research has revealed, however, that the first large-scale hiring program for African Americans began in 1944. By the end of the war, a segregated office of 30 African Americans was engaged in researching messages encrypted in unknown systems, analyzing them, and producing translations.

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Lillie Berry

Ms. Lillie Berry began her career at Arlington Hall in 1956 as a clerk typist in the signals analysis unit. She quickly learned the terminology and pressed analysts to explain to her the concepts. After attending a signals analysis course and mastering a basic understanding of the subject, she was requested, in the early 1960s, to teach portions of the introductory material. She, thus, became the first African American woman in the Agency to give instruction in that discipline. In 1968, she marked another first when she became the first African American woman assigned as an Agency recruiter. Finally, Ms. Berry is remembered for having established the Career Information Center, the predecessor of today's Career Resource Center. Ms. Berry retired in 1988.