The A to Z Challenge asks bloggers to post 26 posts, one for each letter of the English alphabet, in April. Most of us choose to make these posts on a particular theme. My theme for 2022 is Codebreaking in World War II, which fits with the topic of the novel that I’m writing. Visit every day (except Sunday) in April for a new post on my topic.
R is for Racism
Black Americans filled two types of jobs at Arlington Hall at the beginning of World War II – custodial staff and messengers. William Coffee worked at Arlington Hall as a houseman and waiter when it was still a women’s college. After the Army took over the property, Coffee stayed on in the custodial staff and was, eventually, recruited as a messenger.
As a messenger, Coffee impressed Colonel Earle F. Cooke enough that when Cooke was ordered to form a black unit (possibly due to a push by Eleanor Roosevelt), he told Coffee to go find him some black employees.
Everything in the Army was segregated by policy, so the newly-formed unit was set to work on commercial codes. Ideally, the US would have been tracking the coded communications between international companies all along to monitor for violations of embargoes and to gather information that might be useful for the war effort. But other communications took priority, so no one was working in that arena – the perfect place, then, for a segregated unit.
“This work was accomplished by three sections. The largest, Production, led by Annie Briggs, identified codes, decoded messages, and provided clerical support. Ethel Just headed a small group of translators in the Language unit. Herman Phynes directed the last section, the B-3-b technical element charged with solving encipherments.” (p. 11, The Invisible Cryptologists: African-Americans, WWII to 1956)
By June 1945, “Bill Coffee was directing the efforts of thirty people distributed over six sections, plus a secretary. Most were engaged in the major activities of code identification and decoding; researching and analyzing unknown codes; and translating.” (p. 13)
The secretive nature of cryptanalysis combined with the invisibility of work by women and work by African-Americans makes our knowledge of these efforts very limited.
That’s what makes The Invisible Cryptologists: African-Americans, WWII to 1956 such a gem. It tells a story that was nearly lost. The first couple of chapters of this online booklet are tough to read — expect the arrogant ignorance of white men and horrifying descriptions of living conditions for black people in Washington DC during World War II. Stick with it, though, to learn more about these amazing women and men who did work that the vast majority of their fellow Americans believed that they were incapable of doing.