African American Women in Cryptography

Learn about African American women trailblazers

Despite growing efforts in the United States to incorporate multiple perspectives into the K-12 educational curriculum, many Americans remain ignorant of African American History (1). This is especially true of narratives which expand beyond slavery and the Civil Rights Movement. For example, according to Casey Cep, a reporter for the New Yorker, “Of the more than ninety-five thousand entries on the National Register of Historic Places—the list of sites deemed worthy of preservation by the federal government—only two per cent focus on the experiences of black Americans” (2).

This lack of interest in African American History results, in part, from a lack of documentation by predominantly white institutions, both private and public. Specifically, in the mid-to-late twentieth-century, organizations subject to racist socio-political norms, such as the National Security Agency (NSA), were unlikely to document the career achievements of African Americans. Additionally, until quite recently, pervasive sexism meant that historians glossed over Black women’s history to an even greater extent than the history of Black men (3).

In the current project, we conducted research on African American women cryptographers while considering the racialized historical preservation efforts which has limited the scholarship in this endeavor. With this in mind, the stories of these five women tells tales of both hardships and triumphs during a time when segregation and racism provided the backdrop for their work in cryptography and cryptanalysis. Not only did these women face sexism within a historically male-dominated field, they were further marginalized as Black women in a racist nation.

  • Explore a timeline of the legacies and contributions of pioneering African American women in cryptography.
  • Then, read the biographies below the timeline of five select women.

Works Cited

  1. King, LaGarret J. “Status of Black History in U.S. Schools and Society.” Teaching and Learning African American History, Social Education. 
  2. Cep, Casey. “The Fight to Preserve African-American History.” The New Yorker, 2020.
  3. Feimster, Crystal N. “Impact of Racial and Sexual Politics on Women's History.” OUP Academic, Oxford University Press, 1 Dec. 2012.

(birth and death dates unknown)

Lillie Berry first started working for the NSA in 1956, after the NSA hired her as a clerk typist in the Signals Analysis Unit. Unit employees gathered information on foreign intelligence. Fascinated by her colleagues' work, Berry took a signals analysis course to move beyond her secretarial role.

(birth and death dates unknown)

A 1932 graduate in Math and English from Prairie View College in Texas, Iris Carr set off to teach school in Horton and then in Austin. Despite her interest in furthering her education, racist institutional policies and segregation laws kept Carr from attending most colleges and pursuing another degree.


Hailing from Philadelphia and born in 1929, Minnie McNeal Kenny graduated from Philadelphia High School for Girls. She first began work at the Commerce Department in Philadelphia, and then the Census Bureau hired her in Washington D.C.

(birth date unknown)-2013

As a graduate from West Virginia State College, Vera Shoffner Russell's passion for math and physics led her to apply for a government employee position. In turn, she took the government employment math test and was subsequently offered a position.


Wilhelmena Ware’s career trek is one of activism, involvement, and spreading educational awareness to minorities. She began her career at the National Security Agency (NSA) in 1949 as a card punch operator.

Explore Cybersecurity HERstory

Get a small taste of twentieth century cryptography.

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Resources & Reflections