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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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Charles Matthews

Charles Matthews, a lifelong Washington resident, became the first student at Hilltop Radio-Electronics Institute, a black-owned electronics school open to African-Americans in Washington, D. C. After graduating, he was hired in 1948 by the Army's cryptologic service at Arlington Hall. As an engineering technician, he worked in the Research and Development organization. Even though his white counterparts, with equal or less experience, received better pay, his $2,100 salary was better than most African-Americans were earning in other positions in the Agency.

Initially, Mr. Matthews tore down equipment, but later he became a project engineer on ABNER 1, the first in-house designed digital computer. He was one of a few African-Americans on the project. He also worked on SOLO, the Agency's first transistorized special-purpose computer. He went on to hold a succession of supervisory and middle-management positions and received the Meritorious Civilian Service Award in 1986. Mr. Matthews retired in 1988.