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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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Minnie McNeal Kenny

2009 Hall of Honor Inductee

African American Honoree

Women in American Cryptology Honoree

Minnie McNeal, a native of Philadelphia, worked at the Commerce Department in Philadelphia, then the Census Bureau in Washington, after graduating from the Philadelphia High School for Girls. She was fortunate to have never worked in the all-black traffic division or in machine processing in the basement of the building. When she was interviewed in 1951 for a position at Arlington Hall, her interviewer (a white woman) was also from the Philadelphia High School for Girls. It was this lucky break that caused Miss McNeal to be part of the first group of blacks assigned "upstairs."

Miss McNeal, and those with her, represented a new breed of African-American employee in the Operations Directorate. She was hired as a communications clerk at the GS-4 level, higher than the starting grades offered to African-Americans in machine processing or Russian plaintext traffic processing. It was also equivalent to that given most whites with comparable qualifications. She entered an intensive training program to prepare her for a professional career as a linguist. Upon completion of the training, Miss McNeal was assigned to ALLO (All Other or non-Soviet) target exploitation problems in a totally integrated environment. It wasn't until later that she learned of the existence of the all-black divisions in the basement that she'd managed to avoid.

During the course of her 43-year career, Mrs. Kenny received NSA's two highest awards: the Meritorious Civilian Service Award (1980) and the Exceptional Civilian Service Award (1984). Her recognitions went beyond NSA. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. singled her out for the Meritorious Executive Award. DCI also gave her the Intelligence Community's Distinguished Service Award.

Mrs. Kenny filled several high level positions in her career including the Deputy Chief of an analytic support division, a Division Chief in the Office of Techniques and Standards, the Deputy Assistant Director for Training with direct responsibility for day-to-day operations of the NCS, and the Assistant Director for Administration. She also represented the DoD on the Congressional Task Force on Women, Minorities, and the Handicapped in Science and Technology. She finished her career in 1993 as NSA's Director for EEO and was a member of the Senior Executive Service (SES-5).