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Cryptologic Pioneers: The African American Experience

African Americans in Cryptologic History

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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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Mitchell Brown

Mitchell Brown served as a radioman in the Signal Corps during WWII. After the war he attended Hilltop Radio-Electronics Institute, a black-owned electronics school in Washington, D. C. open to African-Americans. In 1948 he was hired by the Army to work at Arlington Hall with the title of engineering technician. He worked side by side with his white counterparts. Although, by all accounts, the environment for African-Americans in the Research and Development organization was generally positive and conducive to professional growth, the white engineering technicians with less or comparable qualifications were hired at higher grades than the blacks. Nonetheless, Mitchell Brown spent his entire 30-year career involved with the development of secure voice communications capabilities. He became an expert on technical devices and ended his career as test director of the Digital Voice Processor Consortium Test Program, which led to the selection of equipment for the Secure Telephone Unit (STU) II. He was commended by Lt. Gen. Allen for his efforts in the development of a narrowband digital voice processor. Mr. Brown retired in 1976.