The Past, Present, and Future of Black CPAs
When John W. Cromwell Jr. became the first Black CPA in 1921, he paved the way for many more to follow. One hundred years later, the CPA profession must continue to increase access and representation as part of its future.
The year is 1921. A baseball game is broadcast on the radio for the first time. The first Miss America pageant is held. Sliced bread sets a new standard for innovation as Wonder Bread begins production. The Tulsa Race Massacre devastates Black Wall Street, killing up to 300 Black Americans. And John W. Cromwell Jr. breaks down barriers to become the United States’ first Black CPA.
United States history is full of paradoxes of progress and racial inequity. With a culture and economy once built on the foundation of slavery, racism has long been apparent in systems and industries—including in the accounting, finance, and CPA professions. “While some notable African American banks and insurance companies were founded in the decades after the Civil War, most Black businesses were extensions of roles performed under slavery, including personal services such as catering, shining shoes, cutting hair, and providing funeral services,” Theresa Hammond writes in “A White-Collar Profession: African American Certified Public Accountants Since 1921,” her seminal book on the history of Black CPAs.
Cromwell broke that mold when he earned his CPA credential, but it took another 45 years for the next 100 Black CPAs to follow in his footsteps. As of 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, roughly 9 percent of the 1.9 million accountants and auditors in the United States were Black, yet the most recent statistics show that Black people make up only 1 percent of all CPAs. Even as we celebrate the centennial of Cromwell’s historic step forward, as well as the progress we have made since then, it’s clear we still have much more work to do.
Overcoming Historic Challenges
In 1961, 40 years after Cromwell earned his CPA license, he was still the only Black CPA in the District of Columbia and New Hampshire. A long-standing barrier to entry for Black CPAs was the hours of apprenticeship required for the certification. As Hammond points out in her book, most firms would not hire Black accountants, claiming that their clients would not accept them. Blocked from gaining the required hours of experience, Black accountants couldn’t meet the qualifications for licensure. Hammond cites a 1933 Journal of Accountancy article that deemed the public accounting profession the “most difficult one for colored men to enter.”
John Adams, CPA, CFO at Rainbow PUSH Coalition, says that Chicago played a starring role in the rise of Black CPAs. Fourteen of the first 32 Black CPAs were from Chicago, and by 1945, half of all Black CPAs in the United States worked in the Windy City. Arthur J. Wilson, the second Black CPA in the United States and the first in Illinois, was one driving force behind Chicago’s role as a Black CPA powerhouse. He earned his credential in 1923 before Illinois passed legislation requiring an apprenticeship before becoming a CPA. He then developed a small public accounting practice during the evenings and weekends in addition to being the cashier at Binga State Bank, one of the largest Black-owned banks in the United States at the time, which afforded him the opportunity to provide experience and advice to other up-and-coming Black CPAs. In fact, Wilson is credited with encouraging Mary T. Washington Wylie to pursue a business degree at Northwestern University and helping her gain the experience she needed to become a CPA. Washington Wylie became the nation’s first Black woman CPA in 1943 and, like Wilson, she went on to provide experience and mentorship to countless other Black professionals working toward becoming CPAs in Chicago.
Adams has spent his life emulating Wilson, working hard to pave the way for other Black CPAs. He grew up poor in Illinois, but his parents encouraged him to pursue education as a way to access new opportunities. He first considered accounting as a profession after hearing it mentioned casually in conversation.
“I was in a summer program between my junior and senior years of high school,” Adams says. “I worked with a couple of attorneys and ended up asking one what college major he would recommend to become an attorney. He finished his story with something that changed my trajectory: ‘You know, being a sole practitioner, I should have majored in accounting so that I could keep my own financial records.’”
That offhand remark made Adams consider the profession, then go on to study accounting in college. After receiving his degree, he accepted an offer from Arthur Young and began his career.
Adams was a child of the civil rights movement and eager to build upon Chicago’s legacy. “I came up singing, saying it loud, ‘I’m Black, I’m proud!’ When I got out of college, this was the culture I was in tune with,” Adams says. “When I found out there was a National Association of Black Accountants (NABA), I didn’t know any Black accountants besides myself. When I called the national headquarters, they informed me that there was no chapter in Chicago and asked me if I would help them start one. At that time there were more Black people entering accounting, so the Chicago chapter of NABA had a very young core.”
With the majority of its membership under 30 years old, the Chicago chapter of NABA was young and inexperienced. However, this group found ways to encourage each other to succeed, fulfilling Wilson’s desire to offer other Black CPAs a hand up and living out the NABA motto, “Lifting as we climb.”
Someone in Your Corner
Many Black CPAs say they wouldn’t be where they are today if it weren’t for the inspiration and support of mentors. Shannon Nash, CPA, Esq., chief accounting officer at Reputation and National Society of Black Certified Public Accountants chairperson, says she owes her own career to a mentor: “Every successful person can point to one to five people that have gone out of their way to help them in their career. My mentor, Larry Bailey, was one of the first Black partners at a major accounting firm. I never actually worked for him, but he’s been instrumental to my career because he has a network that I would’ve never had access to otherwise. He was one of those people in my career who told me who I should talk to and where I should go, and networks like that are everything in terms of your career ladder.”
These kinds of support and connection are essential for gaining any momentum toward a more diverse and equitable profession. Daisjuan Burns, risk assurance experienced associate at PwC, counts Adams as one of his own mentors, someone who helps him network and find success. Burns recently passed his CPA exam and has already begun paying it forward, lending a helping hand to even newer associates at his firm.
“Being able to see people who look exactly like me in powerful positions goes to show that if they can do it, then I can do it, too,” Burns says. “But just as important is for everyone else to see it, to normalize that this person is just as worthy of this achievement as someone else.”
Representation doesn’t just start and end in the workplace, either. As Nash puts it, accounting has a “branding problem.” It’s rare for a television show or movie to depict an emotionally complex CPA completing their work and navigating daily life, and there’s no family-friendly sitcom featuring a mom living a comfortable life as an accountant. Ebenezer Scrooge may be the most famous fictional accountant—not the best public image. Black CPAs agree: To see any real change in the number of Black CPAs entering and sticking with the profession, the industry needs to showcase the opportunities it offers to a more diverse group of people at a younger age.
The Education Pipeline
“Go to school, get good grades, get a good job, and live the American dream. Coming from Trinidad, my parents set me up on a path where these steps seemed straightforward and attainable,” says Sherry Ann Mohan, CPA, managing director at Goldman Sachs and vice chair of the NABA board of directors.
While Mohan’s immigrant parents taught her the importance of education, her college friend group introduced the idea of becoming a CPA.
“It wasn’t until my sophomore year of college that I had an accounting class. I always made good grades and considered law or medicine, but for me, the most important factor was being around people who had similar goals and plans,” Mohan says. “Because of them, I discovered accounting as a possible career path.”
Because of accounting’s branding problem, it often takes that first-hand perspective from a CPA or someone who knows a CPA to interest young people in pursuing the vocation and the credential.
“That’s part of the problem; people aren’t curious about accounting as a profession. You don’t see it unless somebody in your family or your friends’ family was an accountant,” Nash says. “Because of this, your idea of what accounting is may be very rudimentary in terms of what we actually do for a living. One of my personal goals is to be way more visible in places where we aren’t now so that visual is out there for the next person.”
A major part of this crusade for visibility involves introducing accounting into school curriculums much earlier. This is why NABA developed its Accounting Career Awareness Program, which Mohan says has been very effective in getting young Black students interested in the accounting field.
“The earlier you can expose students to accounting the better, because it really does help students start thinking about what’s possible. Being able to give students an understanding of what an accountant actually does opens up doors,” Mohan says.
Even incorporating Cromwell’s story into the curriculum could help show minority students there’s a place for them in the industry. As Burns laments, in his recent studies no mention was made of the journey for Black CPAs: “Not many people know about Mary T. Washington Wylie and certainly not John W. Cromwell Jr. Why is that? If we could show students earlier that there are people in the profession that look like them, it could inspire them to go farther.”
The Next 100 Years
2021 and the Black CPA centennial follow on the heels of an infamous year for Black civil rights. Moving forward, it’s important to reflect not only on how far we’ve come since Cromwell’s achievement, but on how much further we have to go to increase access to, and education about, the CPA profession.
“The killing of George Floyd has awakened the conversation around racial disparity in our country; the racial gaps in wealth, health, education, opportunity, and representation are gaping holes in the fabric of the American ideology. There are opportunities for sectors like accounting and finance and organizations like NABA to leverage platforms and narrow those gaps,” Mohan says. “Around the board table, it’s easy to see the progress we’ve made and how forward-thinking our founders’ vision was. We need to make sure we continue to move that legacy forward. Through partnership and collaboration, we continue to provide better support and understanding of the challenges that exist beyond just making sure our members do well in school or get jobs. There’s an entire framework in the industry that we strive to change.”