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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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Iris Carr

In 1932 Iris Carr received a Bachelor of Science degree with a double major in mathematics and English from Prairie View College in Texas. Like many women of her day, she taught school. During the summers she drove to New York to take classes at Columbia University and in 1944 she moved to Washington. After WWII Ms. Carr worked at the black-owned electronics school Hilltop Radio Electronics Institute grading math papers and teaching business English. After meeting someone who worked for AFSA, Ms. Carr joined the agency in 1950 and was assigned to the Russian plain text office, "the snake pit," as a statistical clerk. Iris Carr expressed pride of accomplishment and patriotism as part of her work ethic. At the age of thirty-three, she was older than most of the employees in the office and was cited by many as being an unheralded hero of the period-one who worked diligently and sought to motivate others. These qualities served her well over the course of her career. In 1958, Ms. Carr became the Personnel Officer for the Office of Collection. She remained in the personnel and administrative field for the rest of her career. She fought diligently, though quietly, for better opportunities for talented but underutilized employees until her retirement in 1971.