Trailblazers in Accounting: John Cromwell Jr.

With more than 5,000 African American CPAs in the United States today, the profession has made remarkable progress in the last 50 years, especially compared to the early years of the CPA designation. This progress was made possible by the dedication and tenacity of many pioneers in the field of accounting—one of the earliest of these trailblazers was the first black CPA, John Cromwell Jr.

Talent Turned Away

John Cromwell Jr. came from an accomplished family – trailblazers in their own right – including his father, the chief examiner for the U.S. Post Office, and his sister, Smith College’s first black graduate. In 1906, John Cromwell Jr. graduated from Yale. With his prowess at mathematics and astronomy, he won the Thayer Prize in Mathematics and was the top science student of his class.

Cromwell’s aptitude and aspiration to become a CPA were met with a roadblock that informally barred African Americans from attaining the CPA designation. To become a CPA, one had to have worked for a CPA. As few CPA firms would hire a person of color, this experience requirement practically made all African Americans ineligible.

Unable to become a CPA, Cromwell taught high school mathematics in his home city of Washington D.C. Fifteen years after Cromwell graduated from Yale, New Hampshire became the first state to eliminate the experience requirement. That barrier removed, Cromwell travelled to New Hampshire and passed the CPA exam, becoming the first black American to receive the CPA designation.

Having become a CPA, Cromwell began to practice accountancy for the black community of Washington D.C. He helped bolster small business and community pillars, all while he continued to teach high school and make mathematics education accessible. Into the 1960s, with more than 160 African American accountants in the country, Cromwell remained the only black CPA practicing in the District of Columbia.

Though the number of African American CPAs has grown dramatically since the 1960s, a number of challenges and barriers remain. By recognizing and appreciating the work of trailblazers like John Cromwell Jr., Dee Studler and SDC CPAs hope to understand the past and shape the future by practicing inclusive hiring and diversity advocacy.

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