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The Past, The Present, The Future

John W. Cromwell

If the way things are had nothing to do with what has come before, history wouldn’t be something taught at school. However, we learn in many arenas that the past plays a big part in shaping the present and the future. Both graphite and diamonds are carbon, nothing but carbon, yet they are very different from each other because of the environment in which they are formed. What happened to the carbon in the past, determines whether is a diamond or graphite today. Is there any story that we can tell that does not involve cause and effect?

On April 17, 1896, the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) designation was established in law in New York. 25 years later, in 1921, John W. Cromwell became the first Black CPA. This year we celebrate the centennial of his achievement and the doors Cromwell opened. When, as a member of the class of 1906, Cromwell graduated from Dartmouth, he was its top science student and then went on to get his masters, also from Dartmouth, in 1907. Despite these achievements, it was 15 years before Cromwell became a CPA, and not through any fault of his.

A native of Washington, D.C., Cromwell had returned home after graduation and discovered that he faced two barriers. First, because he was Black, he was not allowed to sit for the CPA exam in Washington, D.C., Virginia, or Maryland. He also faced a barrier, that would stymie many Black people who wished to become CPAs – the experience requirement. In those states, in order to become a CPA, you were required to work under the supervision of a CPA, something that became the biggest barrier, for Black people, to become a licensed CPA. Even as recently as the 1960’s Bert Mitchell, who was the 100th Black CPA in the United States, struggled to find a job with an accounting firm. Despite graduating at the top of his class, 25 firms would not hire him, using their clients’ attitudes (it could never be their own) toward people of color as an excuse. A window opened for Cromwell in 1921, when New Hampshire instituted CPA laws that did not mandate the experience requirement, and Cromwell took advantage of the opportunity. He traveled to New Hampshire, sat for, and passed the CPA exam in 1921.

Fulfilling the academic requirements of the CPA license is difficult enough – right now, only about half of those who take the CPA exam pass it, and back then an even smaller fraction passed. Now, imagine that you had to wait 15 years, and travel over 500 miles, just to be allowed to even try to suffer through it, despite having graduated from an Ivy League school, at or near the top of your class. Because of their race, the first Black CPAs faced and overcame groundless barriers that had nothing to do with their abilities and everything to do with people’s biases, discriminatory views, and actions.

100 years ago, when Cromwell became a CPA, he became an example of the possible and opened the way for others to follow. Perhaps in 1926, when Cauncey L. Christian took the CPA exam in Kentucky, Christian was braver because Cromwell had shown what was possible. Christian sat for the exam at a time when the exam was not open to Black people. So, in that exam room, Christian had a concern that the other 49 White men taking that exam did not. Although Christian was light skinned enough to pass for white, he must have been fearful of his race being discovered. But, because of his courage, out of the 50 men who took the CPA exam, Christian was one of 7 who passed and, by doing so, became the third Black CPA in the United States. As each Black CPA was licensed, more Black students saw a path to the profession opening up for them as well.

2021 is the Black CPA Centennial and, in commemoration of the trail that John W. Cromwell blazed a century ago, several organizations, including organizing partners the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA), Diverse Organization of Firms, Inc., Illinois CPA Society, National Association of Black Accountants (NABA), and National Society of Black CPAs (NSBCPA) will recognize Black CPAs and push for greater progress. The themes of the centennial are honoring the past, celebrating the progress that has been made, and continuing to build the future.

As we learn about the history of our profession, the pioneers, the challenges, and the triumphs, it should help us better understand its current state. The more we know about the history of exclusion, the better we can understand the lack of diversity and the lack of inclusion of various demographics, especially in leadership positions. We should think harder and question if the status quo exists for any better reason than the environments that existed in the past. We should remember and honor those who, in addition to having to work hard had to find their success, had to navigate around or through the arbitrary biases of others. Most of all, we should look at our present and what we can do now to create an environment that builds a future of belonging, equity, and inclusion in our profession.

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Inspiration NYSSCPA Props

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.