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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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Herman Phynes

In March 1944, Herman Phynes was a subprofessional (SP)-5 cryptanalytic aide returning to government work after brief stints as an insurance salesman and a real estate agent. A Washington, D.C., native, he had a B.A. degree (1941) from Howard University. His earlier government service was as a clerk for the Internal Revenue Service and as a messenger and clerk in the War Department. Dissatisfied with both the pay and levels of responsibility, he left the civil service to seek work more consistent with his academic background.

In his first assignment with the Signal Security Agency, Mr. Phynes worked in the all-black unit exploiting commercial coded messages. In 1946 he replaced William Coffee as assistant O.I.C. (officer in charge). Herman Phynes directed the B-3-b technical element charged with solving encipherments. In February 1947, the practice of having a Caucasian as the nominal head of the Commercial Code unit ended with the appointment of Herman Phynes to the position of O.I.C. He was a P-2 (Professional Level-2) with an annual salary of $3,522.60. Twenty-eight years into the future, Herman Phynes would be a GG-16, army flag officer equivalent, and NSA's first African-American office chief in the Operations Directorate.

Mr. Phynes retired in 1975.