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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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David Bryant

Although born in Georgia, David Bryant attended Florida A&M until he joined the US Navy in 1942. Following the war, he came to Washington and worked as a statistical clerk for the Census Bureau. He and 14 other African-Americans transferred to ASA from the Census Bureau in 1947. They were assigned to the Russian plaintext traffic processing unit. From this small cadre of black communications, clerks grew a large, essentially all-black division in the Operations Directorate of NSA. In 1948, Russian encrypted systems went silent leaving the plaintext messages as virtually the only form of intelligence coming from the Soviet Union.

This all-black office, which became known as "the snake pit," filled a critical void in the Cold War. By 1950, Mr. Bryant had secured a transfer out of the traffic processing branch and was attending Russian language preparatory classes working as a translator/analyst in the Russian plaintext branch. Mr. Bryant was one of the first African-Americans to become a Russian linguist. After holding several analytic and staff positions, Mr. Bryant joined the newly established Equal Employment Opportunity office in 1968. While there, he helped expand agency recruitment at traditionally black universities creating opportunities for other African-Americans. Mr. Bryant retired in 1968.