March 2003

A White-Collar Profession: African-American Certified Public Accountants Since 1921

By Theresa A. Hammond

The University of North Carolina Press; 232 pp.; hardcover, $39.95, ISBN: 0807827088; softcover, $16.95, ISBN: 0807853771
Reviewed by Raymond P. Jones, CFE, CPA, Watson Rice LLP

Iwas extremely moved by the history of the African-American CPA that this book presents, especially its portrayal of John W. Cromwell, the first African-American to receive licensure, in 1921. I have often heard of the difficult times experienced by those who have paved the way for me, but I never truly understood the complete history.

Theresa Hammond’s chronicle begins in 1921 and takes the reader up to the present day. African-Americans often hear the phrase “We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us,” but this phrase is much more significant for those who have become CPAs in the past 30 years. Hammond describes one of the challenges of obtaining the experience requirements necessary to receive the CPA accreditation. Many early African-American CPAs were forced to wait years to obtain their license because they could not secure employment due to racial prejudice, which was sometimes attributable to clients that did not want African-Americans working on their engagements, thereby discouraging firms from hiring them. Some of the first African-American CPAs, although they were few in number, established firms and then employed other African-American to provide them with experience and, ultimately, their licenses. This was true in the case of Lucas and Tucker, an African-American CPA firm founded by Wilmer Lucas and Alfred Tucker to help others break into the profession that grew into a powerhouse in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

The rate of growth for African-Americans in the professions was slower in accounting than in medicine or law. This reflected the needs within the African-American community. As business and commerce grew, so did the accounting profession and the need within the African-American community for CPAs. African-American CPA firms had to rely upon the development of their own communities in order to expand. Developing large firms was difficult, however, because of the lack of industry in the African-American community. As of the most recent data, from 1997, lawyers and doctors had African-American representation of 2.7% and 4.2%, respectively, while African-Americans made up barely 1% of CPAs.

The large accounting firms did not hire their first African-Americans until the 1960s and did not have an African-American partner until 1971, when Elmer Whiting merged his African-American practice with Ernst & Ernst in Cleveland. The 1970s saw an influx of African-Americans into what were then the Big Eight. I joined Arthur Andersen in 1979. While there was much to learn at larger firms, there were also many challenges. Many of the whites at these larger firms had never lived or gone to school with African-Americans, which made for an awkward working environment.

Today the United States has many successful African-American CPA firms that continue to employ individuals that have successful professional careers. Many have made great strides in the profession. Many firms, such as Mitchell and Titus; Banks, Finley, White & Co.; Bert Smith & Company; Herman Johnson, CPA; and King, King & Associates, have stood the test of time. All of these firms’ founders were pioneers in the CPA profession.

A compelling aspect of this book was the list of the first 100 African-American CPAs in the United States. I felt enormously gratified to have known some of them personally. Understanding what they went through to provide the foundation for African-American CPAs in America is truly something special that can be appreciated. I have personally benefited from the success of Watson Rice, an African-American CPA firm founded in Cleveland in 1971 by Tom Watson (deceased) and Bob Rice (still head of the firm’s Cleveland office). As a third-generation leader, having succeeded Tom Watson and Bennie Hadnott as managing partner, I can sincerely appreciate the struggle of the African-American CPA as chronicled in this exceptional book.

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