Paying It Way Forward

Bert_Mitchell

Bert N. Mitchell

Last night I attended the New York State Society of CPA’s (NYSSCPA) Moynihan Fund Gala. I was looking forward to a fun night with my colleagues, looking out on the water as the sun set and enjoying good food and drinks. What I did not expect was the incredible history lesson that I received from Lifetime Award Honoree, Bert N. Mitchell. In 1987, Mitchell became the first black president of the NYSSCPA and, during his tenure, the NYSSCPA launched the Career Opportunities in the Accounting Profession (COAP) program. I was already aware of these very impressive aspects of Bert Mitchell’s career, but, as he shared his life story, I found that these achievements were only scratching the surface.

Mitchell shared, last night, that he was the 100th black CPA in the United States. This statistic hit harder when he shared that he earned this qualification in 1965, a little more than ten years after Bernadine Coles Gines became the first black woman to become a CPA in New York and the 34th black person to become a CPA in America. Even though it was 11 years after Gines had encountered many obstacles on her journey to becoming a CPA, Mitchell did not find things to be much easier when he graduated, at the top of his accounting class, in 1963. Despite his top-notch qualifications, Mitchell spent two weeks seeking a position at one of the top accounting firms, preferably, one of the Big 8 (at the time). He travelled from lower Manhattan and worked his way to Midtown, stopping in at every major CPA firm and, over and over again, he was turned away, with the excuse that their clients’ attitudes regarding hiring a black person were why they wouldn’t give him a job. In 1968, the AICPA launched the Committee on Recruitment from Minority Groups and Mitchell was one of the five black members of the eleven member committee. A year later, in 1969, Mitchell published a study entitled “The Black Minority in the CPA Profession” and this study found that underrepresentation in the CPA profession was worse than in law, medicine and other professions. This study found that out of 100,000 CPAs in the United States, fewer than 150 were black and firms claimed, as they had to Mitchell when he was seeking employment, that the barrier to hiring African Americans was not their own bias but that of their clients.

In a follow-up to the 1969 study, Mitchell published a study in 1975 that showed that the number of black CPAs had tripled to 450. As encouraging as this information was, there was still much to and, as became apparent, Mitchell was nowhere near done. When Mitchell became president of the NYSSCPA in 1987, the stats were depressing. Black people made up almost 13% of the population, yet they made up less than one percent of CPAs. In comparison to other professions, only airline pilots had lower representation. Representation by other peoples of color was not much better – Latino representation also hovered around 1% and Asian representation was about 3%.

When I heard Bert Mitchell’s speech last night, I knew I needed to know more and when he mentioned that he was the 100th black CPA in America I, fortunately, knew exactly where to go. When I met and was moved and inspired by Bernadine Coles Gines, I went out and bought the book “A White-Collar Profession, African American Certified Public Accountants Since 1921” by Theresa A. Hammond. This book, published in 2002, tells the history of African Americans in the profession. I knew I would find him in there, not only because of the incredible work that he has done to expose people of color to the CPA profession, but also because I remembered that the book included a list of the first 100 black CPAs in the United States. I got home and there he was – “100. Bert N. Mitchell 1965 New York”.

At the Gala, as three alumni of the COAP program took to the stage and shared their stories of how the program and not only exposed them to the CPA profession but also made them believe that this was possible for them, I was deeply moved by the work and efforts of Bert N. Mitchell and others who, like him, have been dedicated to diversity and inclusion in our profession. Pick up the book, read it and learn more about Mitchell and the other first 100. This is not ancient history, it is actually amazing how recent this history is. It is hard to pass the CPA exam. It is a daily challenge to maintain the standards and knowledge that make us trusted professionals. It should never be a struggle to be hired because of your race, gender or sexual orientation. I am truly in awe, as Bert N. Mitchell, truly has dedicated his life to advocating for diversity and fairness in the profession.

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