Throughout 2021, the profession celebrated a historic achievement that occurred in the face of adversity. In 1921, John W. Cromwell, Jr. became the first black CPA agreement, an achievement that opened doors for aspiring generations of black CPAs.
The successes of early Black CPA Partners and those who came after them served as the impetus for this year’s Black CPA Centennial project. The multifaceted effort throughout the year was a collaboration between the AICPA, the Diverse Organization of Firms Inc. , the Illinois CPA, the National Association of Black Accountants, and the National Association of Black Certified Public Accountants.
honor the past
The Black CPA Centenary highlights the inspiring stories of Black CPAs who broke down barriers and inspired others to do the same. Among the pioneers who were shown:
- Cromwell, whose family focused on education, attended a college preparatory program at Howard. He studied mathematics and astronomy at Dartmouth, earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, graduating Phi Beta Kappa, and winning the Thayer Prize in Mathematics there. Although he also taught himself accounting, he had to wait 15 years to become a chartered accountant. The delay occurred because he was unable to obtain the necessary experience for licensing because the CPA companies refused to hire him and other black accountants during that time because they insisted that white clients would not work with a black person. In 1921, he took the standardized CPA exam in New Hampshire, which had no experience requirement. During his career, he worked with clients in the Washington, D.C. area, taught mathematics, and spent three years as an observer at Howard University.
- After opening her basement clinic in Chicago, Mary T. worked tirelessly to find and hire aspiring black chartered accountants so they had the experience they needed to join the profession. Her firm’s clients have generally been small black-owned, non-profit businesses, as well as large black-owned businesses. The company would eventually grow into one of the largest black-owned companies in the country.
- The presence of black professors who teach accounting classes can influence whether black students choose to study accounting. Two pioneers opened the door to academia for the generations that came after them: William Lewis Campfield, who became the first black CPA doctorate. In 1951, Larsette Hill, who became the first black woman to hold a Ph.D. in 1955. Among other accomplishments, Campfield was eventually the first black accountant to be inducted (posthumously) into the American Accounting Association Hall of Fame, while Hill presided over the Utah State University School of Accountancy and was the first black person to be appointed a trustee of the Utah Board of Higher Education .
- Fifty years after blacks first entered the profession, Elmer J. Whiting Jr. broke another barrier in 1971 when he became the first black partner of what was known at the time as the Big Eight. Earning an MBA from Case Western University and a law degree from Cleveland Marshall School of Law, he struggled to get the experience he needed after college. Finally, he successfully petitioned for a bookkeeping business deemed valid experience for a CPA license and became the first black CPA in Ohio in 1950. He opened his own successful business in Cleveland and became a partner in Big 8 when his practice was bought by Ernst & Ernst.
These are just a few of the leaders and role models recognized during the centenary of the Black Comprehensive Peace Agreement. In addition, many other organizations—such as those that support their day-to-day missions and advance the advancement of black CPAs, as well as many of the state’s CPA associations—have strong initiatives to improve career diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).
The year-long anniversary campaign culminated with a special virtual celebration event in November to honor the past, celebrate achievements, and build on the future of the Black CPA community. He also highlighted the outstanding CPA Black who was selected for the inaugural 40 Under 40 Black CPA Award.
The event included inspiring stories of some of the first black CPA partners, and highlighted the unique programs supporting aspiring black CPA partners.
Proceeds from the virtual celebration and donations from individuals and organizations are directed to the Black CPA Centenary Fund, which was established earlier this year to support national grants and other programs to assist black individuals interested in pursuing CPA accreditation. Campaign partners plan to distribute funds raised during 2022 with the goal of supporting programs that provide black accounting students and young professionals with access to training, job opportunities, mentors, and financial assistance for expenses related to becoming a chartered accountant.
We build the future
The first 100 years of black CPA certifications tell a story of design and inspiration. However, despite the tireless work of these individuals and organizations, the proportion of black CPAs in the profession is still very low. Much progress is needed.
In addition to honoring leading black CPAs, articles in this series also focus on advice for companies and other employers who wish to hire, retain, and promote more black CPAs. Some recommendations are:
- Introduce black students to career opportunities. Given the small percentage of the acquisition cost for blacks, it is unlikely that black students will grow up knowing their acquisition costs and learning what they are doing. CPAs can begin by offering offerings that advance the profession to primary and secondary schools with minority populations.
- Improve the number of black chartered accountants who teach accounting. Students are more likely to be drawn to classes and careers if relevant courses are taught by people who are similar to them.
- Broaden the horizon of recruitment. Consider ramping up recruitment efforts at historic black colleges and universities.
- Focus on providing more role models. Black students and young professionals may choose other careers if they cannot envision themselves successful in the profession. They may also feel more integrated into a company that is openly welcoming and supportive of black professionals.
- Understand the financial and other obstacles that black students may encounter. For example, some may need to juggle one or more jobs to fund school and the cost of preparing for the standardized CPA exam. When hiring and trying to retain black professionals, employers should be aware of the impact their financial situation may have on their academic background and ability to become certified.
- Ensure that black professionals have the same opportunities for growth. Be intentional about assigning sponsors, mentors, and extended assignments to them.
For any of these steps to be successful, employers must make diversity, equity, and inclusion a strategic priority. DEI must have strong corporate leadership support and be recognized as an important strategic initiative that broadens the company’s perspective, delivers recruitment and retention benefits, and attracts clients seeking to work with an organization that reflects society. Building on the excitement of celebrating the centenary of the Black CPA and the inspiration of the people and organizations that have emerged in the past year, corporate leaders can make real change.
The Black Centennial CPA It was a year-long effort to honor, celebrate, and build on the progress that black CPAs have made in shaping the accounting profession.. The celebration was a collaborative effort of the AICPA, a diverse corporate organization, the Illinois CPA, the National Association of Black Accountants, and the National Association of Black Accountants.
– Anita Denise Freelance writer based in New Jersey. To comment on this article, contact Elaine Goldstein, Director of Communications and Special Projects for the Association, at Elaine. Goldstein@aicpa-cima.com.