During World War II, a unit of primarily Black women secretly worked as code breakers as part of a massive 10,000-women strong code breaking intelligence program. Unit B-3-b.
Located in Arlington (home now of the National Foreign Affairs Training Center), up to 15 percent of the workforce was black at the time. Due to segregation, even people working on the same projects were apparently unaware of this special division.
Only two names have been unearthed in ongoing research: Annie Briggs and Ethel Just, as well as Black supervisor William Coffee.
Ethel Just was likely born Ethel Highwarden, having married Black biologist Ernest Just. The October 1956 edition of a periodical at the time called Just a “translator” in the War Department.
Annie Briggs led the “production” section, which identified codes, decoded messages and provided clerical support.
NSA documents show William “Bill” Coffee started as a cryptographic clerk in 1944, eventually becoming the assistant civilian in charge of Unit B-3-b. By late 1944, Coffee was directing the efforts of 30 people in six sections, engaged in code identification and decoding, as well as researching and analyzing unknown codes.
Although B-3-b was a unique and unprecedented organization, these early African American cryptanalysts and translators appear to have been virtually invisible.