mary washington

Black History Facts – John Cromwell & Mary Washington (Black CPAs)

Mary T. Washington - first black female cpa

When she attended Northwestern University’s School of Chicago Business in the late 1930s, Washington found that she was the only woman in the program, and certainly the only black female student. Being light-skinned, however, she was easily accepted as white, as Washington’s daughter, Barbara Shepherd, a retired Chicago Public School teacher, explained. Washington began building her tax-season clientele in 1939, and focused on serving the community of small black-owned businesses in her area. One of her early and long-time clients was S.B. Fuller, a self-made millionaire and owner of the cosmetics company Fuller Products Company. Fuller came to rely heavily on Washington’s services and advice, and later leased some of his business office space to her to accommodate her growing business. Washington earned her degree in 1941 and was able to serve her apprenticeship with Wilson. When she sat for the CPA licensing exam, again, she was the only woman in the room.

In 1943 she became the nation’s 13th African-American CPA, and the first female of the group to attain her license, she became a leader for future generations of accountants. The firm she began in her basement on the South Side of Chicago in 1939, known today as Washington, Pittman & McKeever, remains one of the largest African-American owned firms in the nation.

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cromwell

 

In 1921, John Cromwell, Jr. became the first African-American CPA. He came from one of the more prominent African-American families in the country. His father was an attorney and the chief examiner for the U.S. Post Office. His older sister, was the first African-American alumna of Smith College, and went on to earn a Ph.D. in English from Yale. John Cromwell graduated from Dartmouth in 1906 as the best student in science.

Fifteen year passed, following Cromwell’s graduation, before he became a CPA. He was not allowed to sit for the CPA exam in Washington, D.C., Virgina or Maryland. Moreover, since all places had experience requirements, the biggest barrier to African-American CPAs was a Catch-22.

After becoming a CPA, Cromwell taught high school accounting in the District of Columbia. He worked exclusively within the black community. In 1930, he became comptroller of Howard University. In the early 1960s, 40 years after he earned his certificate, John Cromwell was still the only African-American CPA in our nation’s capitol.

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As someone who has worked in accounting and audit for 4 years now, it is crazy to think just how hard these two worked to accomplish their goals.  Don’t give up, y’all!