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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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William Coffee

2011 Hall of Honor Inductee

African American Honoree

In April 1946, William D. Coffee was awarded the Commendation for Meritorious Civilian service for his wartime leadership in exploiting critical enciphered messages. During a time of harsh racial discrimination, he excelled and became the acting supervisor of a segregated office that made impressive contributions to the nation's cryptologic achievements.

Mr. Coffee was born in 1917 in Abington, Virginia. He studied English at Knoxville College in Tennessee. During the years of the Great Depression, from 1937-1940, he worked in the Civilian Conservation Corps. In September 1941, he was hired as a waiter at Arlington Hall School for Girls. The Army's cryptologic organization soon acquired the property, and, in June 1942, Mr. Coffee was hired as a junior janitor with the Signals Intelligence Service. His supervisors at Arlington Hall Station soon recognized his skills and promoted him to messenger in January 1943. By April he was head messenger.

In June 1944, Mr. Coffee's skills were called upon to recruit African-American cryptologists to work at Arlington Hall. When the head of the cryptologic branch of what was now the Signal Security Agency was having trouble finding qualified African-American cryptologists, Mr. Coffee took a leading role in recruiting them. He brought on board about 100 African-Americans with proper qualifications for cryptologic activities. With this achievement, his title was again changed-this time to cryptologic clerk.

In November 1944, Mr. Coffee further proved his skills and became Assistant Civilian in Charge of B-3-b with 19 civilian employees under him. B-3-b was a unit tasked to exploit nongovernmental coded messages originating from European, Asian, and Latin American countries. In a later interview with Mr. Benson K. Buffham, who eventually became Deputy Director of NSA, he said that Mr. Coffee was the real expert and head of the unit, running daily operations with impressive efficiency. Mr. Coffee's roles and responsibilities continued to increase to include exploiting diplomatic codes of several countries and managing 30 people who worked in code identification and decoding, researching and analyzing unknown codes, and translating.

After the war, Mr. Coffee's office became involved in an important transcription activity during the Cold War for which he became its officially recognized supervisor in 1947. He joined the Armed Forces Security Agency, NSA's predecessor, and made the transition to NSA.

Mr. Coffee, a pioneer who broke barriers of racial discrimination, left NSA in 1972.

William Coffee led his cryptologic unit with distinction during World War II. His strength of character brought dignity to African-Americans in cryptologic work at a time when discrimination was sanctioned. His efforts made possible the advances toward acceptance of minorities and diversity values in the generation that followed.

Mr. Coffee passed away in 1989 at age 72.