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.