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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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Vera Shoffner Russell

Vera Shoffner Russell, graduated from West Virginia State College as a math and physics major in 1951. She took the government employment math test and was offered a position. She reported to the Agency in 1951 and was assigned as a programmer on the early computers, ABNER 2, ATLAS 1, and ATLAS 2. Like the vast majority of African-Americans hired before 1954, she started at a lower grade than similarly qualified whites. In fact, she believes the personnel office thought she was white and originally offered her a GS-5. When she arrived, they asked if she'd accept a GS-4 instead, which she did.