Reprinted in its entirety from Discover Audit, February 21, 2017 and republished in 2021.
In 1921, John Cromwell, Jr. became the first African American Certified Public Accountant (CPA). Cromwell graduated from Dartmouth in 1906 as the best student in science, then in 1907, he earned a Master’s degree from Dartmouth. Fifteen years later, he became a CPA. However, the road to becoming a CPA was not easy. Cromwell was not allowed to sit for the CPA exam in Washington, D.C., Virginia, or Maryland. Moreover, since all places had experience requirements, the biggest barrier to African American becoming CPAs was a catch-22. Luckily, in 1921, New Hampshire passed legislation no longer mandating the experience requirement, which allowed Cromwell the opportunity to travel to the state and take the exam. After becoming a CPA, Cromwell taught high school Accounting in the District of Columbia, and worked almost exclusively within the black community. In 1930, he became comptroller of Howard University. In the early 1960s, 40 years after he earned his certificate, John Cromwell was still the only African-American CPA in our nation’s capital.
Mary Thelma Washington, who became the first female African American CPA in 1943, died in 2015, less than a year away from her 100th birthday. Early in her career, she worked as the Assistant to Arthur J. Wilson, the country’s second African American CPA, at Binga State Bank of Chicago, one of the country’s largest African American-owned banks. Wilson encouraged her to pursue a Business degree at Northwestern University and helped her obtain the experience needed to become a CPA. Washington opened her own accounting firm in 1939, largely serving small black-owned companies. Many white-owned firms would not hire Black Americans, and she is credited with giving numerous aspiring African American accountants the chance to meet the experience requirement for becoming CPAs. She soon built a thriving business serving Chicago’s large Black middle class. Her firm, which ultimately became Washington, Pittman, and McKeever, grew into one of the largest Black-owned CPA firms in the country.
Earlier this month, our friends at NABA shared that these days, Black Americans compose less than one percent of all CPAs; however, that proportion represents a vast increase over the numbers of just a few years ago. When NABA was formed in 1969, Black Americans, along with other ethnic minorities, faced significant obstacles across the profession—from gaining acceptance into undergraduate accounting programs, to overcoming laws barring Black Americans from sitting for the CPA exam, and even getting hired to being recognized and promoted in accounting departments and firms. NABA became a vehicle through which ethnic minority professionals could be assisted as they climbed the corporate ladder, pursued the CPA credential, and worked their way up to Partner or CFO in companies and firms. NABA’s motto is “Lifting as We Climb,” which is embodied in its logo depicting two interlocked hands, with one pulling the other up. The image denotes both the political struggle NABA faced during its founding and the goal of helping future generations of accounting professionals.
One of the profession’s latest achievements came last October when Kimberly Ellison-Taylor, CPA, CGMA became the first Black Chairman of the AICPA. She is also the youngest, the fifth female, and only one of a few Chairs from business & industry. She is committed to facilitating increased interaction between AICPA and NABA and a continuing – if not increasing – focus on talent development and inclusion at AICPA and throughout the accounting profession. We will continue to celebrate black trailblazers in the profession all month long
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