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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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Joseph McKinney

Mr. McKinney entered the cryptologic community in 1948 with the Army Security Agency after graduating from A"T State University in Greensboro, NC, in electrical engineering and physics. He was involved in the engineering and field deployment of special HF Signals Intelligence equipment used in the detailed analysis of characteristics of transmitters of unfriendly military forces. He was a member of the first NSA engineering group when NSA was formed in 1952. As target communications at VHF and higher frequencies were encountered, Mr. McKinney played a critical role in the development and fielding of equipments to meet this challenge. His work was not limited to the laboratory but involved extensive field work to rapidly deploy these equipments. Mr. McKinney retired from the NSA in 1973 to become a full-time staff member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.