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John W. Cromwell, Jr., the first African-American CPA, 1921. Courtesy of Adelaide Cromwell
Stories of America's first black CPA's
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For an audience in Higgins Hall on October 16, 2002, associate accounting professor Theresa A. Hammond shared narratives from her newly published book, A White-Collar Profession: African-American Certified Public Accountants since 1921. At the end of the 20th century, Hammond said, fewer than 1 percent of CPAs in the United States were African-American. That compared with 2.7 percent of lawyers and 4.2 percent of medical doctors. Hammond profiled three groundbreaking black Americans who struggled for a place in the business. Also present that night was Ruth Coles Harris, the first African-American female CPA in Virginia, who told her own story.

JOHN W. CROMWELL, JR.

In 1921, John W. Cromwell, Jr., became the first African-American to earn the designation of CPA, some 25 years after the first CPA certificate was granted in the United States. Cromwell was a member of one of the leading African-American families in the country. His father was a teacher, political activist, attorney, and chief examiner for the U.S. Post Office. Cromwell's older sister, Otelia, was the first African-American alumna of Smith College and went on to earn a Ph.D. in English at Yale. Cromwell was exceptional himself. He graduated from Dartmouth as the best student in science in the class of 1906. A year later he completed his master's degree there.

The profession most open to African-Americans at the time was teaching. After finishing at Dartmouth, Cromwell returned home to Washington, D.C., and became a mathematics teacher at the Dunbar School, the most prestigious black high school in the country.

Fifteen years passed before John Cromwell became a CPA. He was not allowed to sit for the CPA exam in Washington, D.C., Virginia, or Maryland. In addition, all those places had experience requirements. The biggest barrier to African-Americans in becoming CPAs has always been the experience requirement: In order to become a CPA you have to work for a CPA, and for the first two-thirds of the last century, most firms would not hire African-Americans. But in 1921 New Hampshire had just passed legislation enabling applicants to get a CPA certificate without meeting an experience requirement. Cromwell traveled to New Hampshire to take the exam.

After becoming a CPA, he continued to teach high school while practicing accountancy in the District of Columbia. He worked almost exclusively within the black community, serving lawyers, churches, restaurants, and funeral homes. In 1930, he became comptroller of Howard University. And in the early 1960s—some 40 years after earning his certificate—John Cromwell was still the only African-American CPA in the District of Columbia.

CHAUNCEY L. CHRISTIAN

Chauncey L. Christian was the third African-American to become a CPA. He chose a risky way to circumvent the race barrier. Christian must have been nervous when he sat down to take the Kentucky CPA exam in 1926. The test was notoriously difficult. He had studied accounting through a correspondence course, and he may have questioned whether his preparation was adequate. He shared his worry with the other men about to endure two days of grueling questions. But the light-skinned Christian had another worry, which he didn't share: He was afraid that the examination monitors would discover that he was African-American. Kentucky did not allow African-Americans to sit for the examination, and although Christian was of mixed heritage, in all Southern states even a small percentage of African-American lineage resulted in a person's classification as Negro.

Christian followed the advice of a friend who urged him to submit his application on the last possible day, so that the state's examiners would not have time to do the background check that would reveal telling personal details—that he had attended an African-American college and an African-American high school. The examiners at the site didn't notice anything unusual about him, and he took the test without interference. Out of 50 candidates, he was one of only seven who passed the exam. There wouldn't be another African-American CPA in Kentucky for the next four decades.

BERNADINE COLES GINES

Like John Cromwell before her, Bernadine Coles Gines headed north to obtain her CPA certificate, leaving Virginia in 1946. The South at that time maintained a fiction of "separate but equal" education. When, in the 1930s and 1940s, the NAACP brought suit against several Southern states, arguing, for example, that if there was no black law school in a state there was no "equal" education, the Southern states came up with a clever strategy: paying the tuition of African-Americans to go to professional schools in the North. So although the University of Virginia was only about a mile from her home, Gines enrolled at New York University in 1946 to earn her MBA, after graduating from historically black Virginia State College.

Even with her new master's degree, Gines had intense difficulty getting a job with a CPA firm in New York City. From her room at the Harlem YWCA, she sent out many letters of application, but did not get invited for a single interview. She worked as a bookkeeper for an African-American newspaper, the New York Age, where she learned from staff members that the one black CPA firm in town, Lucas Tucker, did not hire women.

Then Gines moved from Harlem to Queens—and suddenly, because her return address no longer revealed her race, she was invited for interviews. When she appeared, however, she received no offers. A partner at one firm said he couldn't hire her as an accountant, but he asked if she might help him find a maid for his wife.

After two years of searching, Gines was interviewed by two young men. They offered her a job, but not before asking her if she was a communist. Apparently, in the 1950s many people thought that African-Americans were likely to be communists. So she had to overcome that prejudice before the pair agreed to hire her.

Later, Gines worked for many years as an auditor in the office of the comptroller of the City of New York.

RUTH COLES HARRIS

"When I was a student at Virginia State College in the 1940s, I had an accounting professor who encouraged us to go on to graduate study. His theory was that you should be as well prepared as you can be, so that whenever the door of opportunity opens, you'll be ready to walk right through.

"I went on to New York University for an MBA. I didn't like New York City, and I was very anxious to get back home to Virginia. But who in Virginia was going to hire me as an accountant? I decided on a career in higher education.

Accounting professsor Ruth Coles Harris (center), with students, in 1961. Courtesy of Ruth Coles Harris"After 13 years of teaching, I thought it might be time to try to pass the CPA examination—as a way to inspire my students. I filed my application in 1962, and a few weeks before the exam I received a letter from the State Board of Accountancy. In the letter was a list of hotels and motels in Virginia Beach, where the exam was to be given. Applicants were to check the name of the place where they wanted to stay, so that reservations could be made for the night.

"I called the state board and explained that I had received this letter and I just wanted to be sure that there really would be accommodations for me in Virginia Beach. The person that I spoke with didn't say anything—there was just stone silence. Eventually the phone got passed to another staff person, who passed it to another. Finally I got to talk to the chairman of the board. He apologized profusely, but admitted that there was no place for me to stay in Virginia Beach.

"I had to find a place to stay in Norfolk and commute to Virginia Beach, while everybody else just walked across the street to the convention center. That made me even more determined not just to take the exam, but to pass it. While I was sitting there trying to concentrate, every member of the state board came by individually to apologize to me. I really didn't want to hear their apologies at that point—all I wanted to do was concentrate on the exam.

"Most people found out whether they had passed the exam by letter. But one morning I was called out of a class I was teaching for an urgent telephone call. My first thought was that something must have happened to my husband or one of my children. I went to the phone, and on the other end of the line was a newspaper reporter. He said to me, 'I hear that you are the first black female ever to pass the CPA exam in the Commonwealth of Virginia.' He said, 'I'm doing a story for the newspaper this afternoon, and I want to interview you.'

"As soon as I got out of class I went downtown and got a copy of the paper. And there was the write-up. It was an Associated Press story. I received letters of congratulation from as far away as Texas and California.

"In 1967, I attended a seminar for accounting teachers at the University of Virginia—74 white males and me. We were sitting around at lunch, and the conversation turned to a conference that was being held in Richmond in a few weeks. Now, I lived and worked in Richmond, but I didn't know what they were talking about.

"Finally, I got up the courage to ask, and somebody explained to me that this was an annual conference that the Virginia Society of CPAs sponsored for accounting educators across the state, and that faculty from all of the colleges and universities were invited. I said, 'Well, I've been an educator in Virginia for 18 years, and I've never even heard of this conference, much less been invited.' And—again, you know, you got a lot of silence in those days when you spoke up and made a statement like that—nobody said anything for a while. Finally, the dean of the undergraduate school at the University of Virginia said to me—he wasn't from the South, and he looked appalled—he said to me, 'I'll see that you get invited.'

"Sure enough, in about a week the accounting faculties of all five of the historically black colleges and universities in the state received an invitation. The omission was explained to us as an oversight. But that's the way it was—sometimes you were just simply ignored. There were lots of ways to discriminate.

"Many years later, I had a chance to serve on the board of directors of the Virginia Society of CPAs. There is a plaque hanging in the lobby of their building, and my name is inscribed there as the Outstanding Accounting Educator in Virginia for 1991. I had the distinction of being the first female as well as the first black to receive that honor. My name is on another plaque in that office also, for the Distinguished Career in Accounting award. I received that in 1997. So some things are changing."

Ruth Coles Harris

Ruth Coles Harris retired in 1997, after 48 years of teaching accounting at Virginia Union University. She and Bernadine Coles Gines are sisters. Theresa A. Hammond is the Ernst & Young Research Fellow in Diversity Studies at the Carroll School.

Photos (from top):

John W. Cromwell, Jr., the first African-American CPA, 1921. Courtesy of Adelaide Cromwell

Accounting professsor Ruth Coles Harris (center), with students, in 1961. Courtesy of Ruth Coles Harris



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