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.
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
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
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.
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.
"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.
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
"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
"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
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