insight magazine

IN PLAY: Celebrating a Trailblazer

David Kelly, CPA, JD, looks back on his achievements and his legacy as the 76th Black CPA in the United States. By Hilary Collins | Winter 2021

david kelly 310 x 388Forty-one years after John W. Cromwell Jr. became the first Black CPA in 1921, David Kelly became the 76th. He helped pave the way for Black accountants to eventually earn the coveted CPA credential—including six within his own family.

Kelly was born into a loving, large family in Chicago, a city where he would spend most of his life. “I’m in Indiana now, but only as an afterthought,” he jokes. He chose accounting as a profession after being told by a counselor that he should be either a musician or an accountant. “I chose accounting because I have musicians in the family and I know how they make a living: barely,” he notes.

Kelly’s sense of humor and realism are the driving force behind his achievements, as not only one of the first 100 Black CPAs but one of the first Black partners at a major firm when in 1976 he became a partner with Arthur Andersen. But his path wasn’t free of obstacles: After receiving his accounting degree from Roosevelt University in 1960, he discovered that accounting firms would not interview Black candidates. He ended up accepting a job with the IRS—not his first choice but an experience he learned to value. “I had a chance to deal with businesspeople who wanted to save on taxes, so they were forced to deal with me straight up,” Kelly explains. “They couldn’t just wave me off like, ‘This guy is Black, he doesn’t know anything.’”

Kelly soon found ways to hold the door open for other Black professionals. One example is as an IRS instructor training new IRS agents, he discovered that his fellow instructors thought that the first Black female trainee needed to be terminated. After comparing her grades to four of her white male classmates and finding them very similar, Kelly proposed terminating all five of them. “They weren’t about to kick those other guys out of class,” Kelly remembers. “I sat down with the lady and told her, this is what you’ve got to learn, and you’ve got to do it on your own. And she did. She became the first Black female internal revenue agent in Chicago.”

Completing law school in 1967, Kelly later solidified his place at Arthur Andersen, where he would spend the bulk of his career. Working at a firm that had yet to promote any Black people to leadership roles, he says he learned to not allow racial issues to weigh him down: “Color was always going to be an issue. No matter what I did, I couldn’t change that. So why should I harp on it to my own dismay? Instead, I looked at my objectives and found ways to meld them with the objectives of the group I’m working with.”

Looking back on his career, Kelly says he’s most proud of his honesty and his habit of stepping up to do the right thing. His legacy will live on in his family, where six of his relatives followed in his footsteps and became CPAs. His daughter and one of his cousins have a practice together, and a nephew and three other cousins have earned the credential and joined the profession. “I told them, if I can do it, you can do it,” he says.

As for the future, Kelly says the next generation of Black CPAs should take the chance they have to transform the profession: “You are bringing something new from a new generation, from a new perspective, and you need to cultivate that.”

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