Recognizing African American individuals who excelled in their fields, broke down barriers, and created opportunities for generations to come is an important tool for inspiring young African American minds to consider science and technology careers.
The African American Experience exhibit at the National Cryptologic Museum shows 18 of the great African American cryptologists who have stood out in the history of code making and code breaking. Some of the earliest black persons hired by the fledgling Signal Intelligence Service were brought into the field as messengers, carrying notes from one analyst to another located in different or distant buildings. In early 1944, General Cooke, then chief of cryptanalysis, was instructed to hire approximately 100 black individuals and give them meaningful work. With the help of his messenger, William Coffee, he established the first segregated unit of black cryptologists. The office became responsible for exploiting commercial coded messages. An all-white office had previously conducted this effort, but it had been disbanded. The new all-black office was responsible for identifying codes, decoding, translating, and routing commercial coded messages from a wide variety of countries. Although nominally under a white supervisor, Bill Coffee ran the daily operations of the office.
Learn more about the African American experience and about the individual honorees via the NSA.gov website. Note that some of the honorees are also featured below.
During Black History Month and all year round, we recognize individuals who excelled in their fields, broke down barriers, and created opportunities for the generations who followed. We are honored to highlight some of these individuals here on this page.
James Pryde - One of "The Invisible Cryptologists"
In celebration of Black History Month 2015, NBC Washington produced a three-part series "Codebreakers: The Invisible Cryptologists" and followed the life of Mr. James Pryde, a radio operator with WWII's Tuskegee Airmen who became one of the "invisible cryptologists." View the articles & video.
Mr. Pryde joined the Armed Forces Security Agency in 1950 as a communications clerk. When it was discovered he could read automatic Morse tape, he was transferred to a signals analysis section, where he became a telemetry analyst.
Mr. Pryde then spent two years on detail to the staff of the Assistant Secretary of Defense. He served as the Director of the Defense Special Missile and Astronautics (now Aerospace) Center (DEFSMAC) from 1978 to 1980. While at DEFSMAC, he became a member of the Intelligence Community's Guided Missile Astronautic Intelligence Committee. In 1980, Mr. Pryde served as the NSA representative to the Department of Defense and in 1981 served as Assistant Deputy Director of Administration at NSA. He was inducted into the NSA/CSS Cryptologic Hall of Honor in 2006.
During his tenure, Mr. Pryde served as an advocate for NSA African-Americans. Through his efforts he helped promote a diverse workforce within NSA, and continued to remind the current generation of the struggles waged by their predecessors for equality. Mr. Pryde retired from NSA in 1981, but continued to support the National Cryptologic Museum and served on the board of the National Cryptologic Museum Foundation. Sadly, he passed away in 2017. He was buried with honors in 2018. View his In Memoriam page.
*You may also be interested in reading the NSA publication The Invisible Cryptologists - African Americans WWII to 1956 by Jeannette Williams and Yolande Dickerson. Visit the Cryptologic Heritage - Publications section of the NSA website and use the online contact form to request this publication.
Ralph W. Adams, Jr.
Mr. Ralph W. Adams, Jr. was a superb Vietnamese language analyst and an extraordinary manager and mentor of linguists. He rose to NSA's second highest civilian position as Executive Director. He was a champion of diversity at NSA who recognized the importance of equality in the workforce. Mr. Adams 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. He was inducted into the NSA/CSS Cryptologic Hall of Honor in 2015 (click on his photo to go to his full NSA Hall of Honor page). Though he passed away in 2017, Mr. Adams and his contributions will always be remembered.
Mrs. Minnie McNeal Kenny
Mrs. Minnie McNeal Kenny served as a civilian for 43 years. She joined NSA as a communications clerk at the GS-4 level, higher than the starting grades offered to African Americans at the time. She was an expert in the fields of language, cryptanalysis, and traffic analysis. Throughout her tenure, she worked to further the cause of minorities at NSA. Her legacy was not only in the impressive changes she effected in NSA structure, policy, and practice, but in the inspiration she was to all NSA employees, regardless of race, giving them faith that they could effect beneficial changes, even in a large institution. Mrs. Kenny was inducted into the NSA Cryptologic Hall of Honor in 2009. To read her full Hall of Honor entry, click on her photo.
Mr. Carroll Robinson
Mr. Carroll Robinson was NSA's first black engineer. He was hired by NSA's Research and Development organization to assist in building the Agency's first in-house developed computer, ABNER 1. At the time, R&D was one of the few areas of the Agency where African Americans and their white coworkers worked side by side to further the NSA mission. Mr. Robinson was the Agency's first African American Senior Executive.
Command Sergeant Major Odell Williams, USA
Command Sergeant Major (CSM) Odell Williams was a superb Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) whose impact extended far beyond those he supervised. CSM Williams was an exceptionally talented educator and manager. He reduced the review cycle time for military cryptologic training by two years, and the time to implement curriculum changes by sixty days. He coordinated the development of courses in Operational Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) and Fusion Intelligence, instituting "first of its kind" virtual/online training at the Naval Technical Training Center. His initiatives helped gain significant additional Congressional funding to support ELINT training. He also brought innovative capabilities to computer networks and network exploitation training for military cryptologists.
CSM Odell Williams' ability to get things done and to find solutions to challenging problems were what made him a superb NCO. He was inducted into the NSA/CSS Cryptologic Hall of Honor in 2016. Click on his photo to visit his Hall of Honor page.
Floyd L. Weakley
Mr. Floyd Weakley reported to NSA in 1965 as a mathematician in a development program for new cryptanalysts. By the 1980s, he was leading a team of analysts in the study of a state-of-the-art cryptosystem used by several major adversaries of the United States. His understanding of the technology involved was a major factor in the team's success. Mr. Weakley authored or co-authored twenty-three technical papers. He also was instrumental in establishing a career development program for cryptanalysts.
Mr. Weakley had a profound effect on NSA's hiring of minorities and their career development. As a member of many boards and in his role as a technical director, he fostered new approaches to diversity issues. In recognition of these efforts, the NAACP presented Floyd Weakley with the Roy Wilkins Renowned Service Award at their national convention in 1996. He was inducted into the NSA/CSS Cryptologic Hall of Honor in 2017. Click on his photo to visit his Hall of Honor page.