Black History Month: Honoring Women of Color and their Contributions to Security

Black History Month is a time for Americans to honor people of color, celebrating their role in everything ranging from arts and culture to science and technology.

The pool of exceptional Black Americans who’ve made their mark on society is vast. However, within the field of security, there are a handful of key players who stand above the rest. This year, we pull back the curtain on several, incredible women of color and their contributions to making the world safer.

The Legacy of American Black Women

Innovation in any field is significant. But innovation in the face of abject adversity is nothing short of legendary. Few pioneers have been tested quite like women trailblazers of color. This contingent of Black women fought to break new ground with a drive that earns them the security profession’s recognition and respect.

Marie van Brittan Brown

A photo of Marie van Brittan Brown

Marie van Brittan Brown

Born in 1922, Marie van Brittan Brown spent much of her early career as a nurse and would later go on to marry an electronics technician, Albert Brown. Because of their careers, it was not uncommon for Marie and Albert to work late into the night, which cultivated an uneasy sense of vulnerability for the young couple living in Jamaica, NY. This was also during an era when people of color were regularly mistreated and subjected to segregation enforced by longstanding Jim Crow laws.

The lack of safety led Marie and her husband to create a key invention in modern security: the closed-circuit television system, or CCTV. This early version of home surveillance gave Marie the ability to clearly see individuals on her doorstep, control their entry via remote, and alert police with the press of a button, should the need arise.

In 1969, three years after the CCTV’s prototyping, Marie and Albert were awarded a patent for their invention alongside formal recognition from the National Scientists Committee. The CCTV has undergone many upgrades since its formative years, but there’s no denying its impact on home and personal security.

Shirley Jackson

A photo of Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson

Shirley would spend much of her young adult life studying and contributing to science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Fueled by a determination to excel in areas others told her she might fail, Shirley Jackson graduated with a PhD in theoretical elementary particle physics in 1973, making her the first African American woman to earn a doctorate degree from MIT.

Dr. Jackson was a prolific inventor. She broke ground on countless, new developments, such as solar cells, a touchtone telephone, fiber optics, and caller ID, all which function for many of today’s security services. Later in her career, Dr. Jackson went on to serve as a member of President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, where she offered consultation to the Executive Branch on critical telecommunications policies that have since re-sculpted the national security landscape.

Near the end of her time in public policy, she was awarded the National Medal of Science. To this day, she continues to be a loud and welcome voice in the tech sector and higher education, serving as an example to women of color keen to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and medicine.

Harriet Tubman

A portrait of Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman is a well-known name to most Americans. She led an extraordinary life that culminated in her heroic shepherding of enslaved persons to freedom through a covert social and physical network, known famously as the Underground Railroad.

Harriet was a dedicated abolitionist whose work helped turn the tides of slavery in early America. After the Civil War, she redirected her passion toward women’s suffrage and became an admired champion for the cause.

As to her legacy on security, many scholars agree that her efforts between 1810 and 1850 constituted one the earlier forms of organized clandestine operations in the West. She planned carefully, used disguises, bribed, traveled by foot, train, horse, wagon, and boat, and used songs to signal danger or safety. Her Underground Railroad efforts included 19 trips between the South and North, delivering many dozens to freedom.

Her operation was supremely effective, and by her own telling, not a single “passenger” was ever lost while under her care.

Minnie McNeal Kenny

A photo of Minnie McNeal Kenny

Minnie McNeal Kenny

Inventors and abolitionists aren’t the only groundbreaking women on this list. Minnie McNeal Kenny is a Hall of Honor inductee, Women in Cryptography honoree, and a recipient of both the Meritorious Civilian Service and Exceptional Civilian Service Awards. She boasts a 43-year-long career of accomplishments as a cryptographer, analyst, linguist, and director-level leader at the National Security Agency.

Minnie served for both the Reagan and Bush Senior Administrations, where her work in intelligence helped safeguard national security during several periods of global unrest. While the loss associated with her passing in 2009 was felt profoundly throughout the national security community, her life’s work paved the way for future generations of black women to find fair opportunities within the federal intelligence space.

The Continuing Struggle for Black Women in Security

The rise of strong, influential Black women across all security fields is gaining momentum. Glass ceilings obstructing advancement for those of all races are growing thinner with each passing year, and women of color leading the charge.

Academic institutions like Old Dominion University regularly pulse check the data. In fields like cybersecurity, only 8% of the workforce is represented by women of color. Similarly, statistical analyses from various sources suggest that less than 20% of protection security roles are occupied by women, and much fewer by Black women.

Advocates like Tayla Parka, Founder of Black Girls in Cyber, are working to improve representation of women in the security field by providing mentorship, networking and training opportunities for young African Americans looking to make the jump to careers in cybersecurity.

Benefits of Diversity in Security

Different cultures coming together to conquer challenges is an inspiring story, and the message is clear: We are better off when Black women are at the table. Diversity can promote thinking outside of our own box and help us see things from different perspectives. It can also promote a more open and broader worldview, making for better communication and innovation, in many sectors including security, overall.

If your organization is interested in learning more about the human-centric elements that foster a strong security culture, sign up for one of our trainings here.


  1. A.B. Slatkin on February 17, 2024 at 11:26 am

    Thank you for sharing these incredible women’s stories. They each accomplished amazing things despite real obstacles.

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