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Cryptologic Pioneers: The African American Experience

African Americans in Cryptologic History

View the African American Honorees

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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Ralph W. Adams, Jr.

2015 Hall of Honor Inductee

African American Honoree

Ralph W. Adams, Jr., a graduate of the University of Nebraska, served in the Army Security Agency in Vietnam as a linguist in 1961, and came to NSA in 1965. Widely recognized for his near-native language skills, he served multiple tours in Vietnam as a language analyst for NSA. Mr. Adams served in Vietnam also as a senior language advisor to both the U.S. Army and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). He was one of the final NSA'ers to escape before the fall of Saigon in 1975.

Over the next 20 years, Mr. Adams held positions of increasing responsibility at NSA. In the late 1980s he was chief of a major overseas liaison office. He served, from 1985-1988, as chief of Legislative Affairs. During this time he received the Exceptional Civilian Service Award for "demonstrating exceptional managerial and professional abilities…" In 1987, Mr. Adams' accomplishments in the cryptologic community were recognized with the Presidential Rank Award of Meritorious Executive.

Mr. Adams, as chief of a major group in the production organization, the Directorate of Operations, led an innovative restructuring of his group which served as a model for similar efforts across the directorate. This restructuring helped get maximum advantage from scarce analytic resources as well as foster more collaboration and technical exchanges.

Mr. Adams in April 1990, became NSA's Inspector General, then, in 1992, was appointed as Chief, NSA/CSS Pacific. Mr. Adams finished his career as the second highest ranking civilian at NSA, the Executive Director from 1995 to 1996.

Throughout his career, Mr. Adams was a strong advocate for diversity in the workplace and fostered awareness of diversity issues. He was one of the original program managers for the Stokes Educational Scholarships, designed to facilitate the recruitment of individuals, particularly minority high school students.

When he retired in 1996, Mr. Adams was presented the National Intelligence Distinguished Service medal, the highest Intelligence Community award for distinguished and meritorious service.