February is Black History Month, a time to bring awareness to the many contributions Black Americans have made throughout our history despite institution and overt racism among other barriers. Here are five Black figures from history who paved the way for other Black Americans to pursue careers in finance and accounting.
Madam C. J. Walker
We’ll start in our home city of Richmond, Virginia. Maggie Walker was teacher, entrepreneur, activist and so much more. For most of her life, she worked for the Independent Order of St. Luke. She started at the age of fourteen and rised through the ranks to eventually become the Right Worthy Grand Secretary – the highest position. At St. Luke, she published a newspaper, The St. Luke Herald where she served as editor. Then, she chartered the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank and served as the bank’s first president, making her the first African American woman to charter a bank in the United States.
Eventually, the bank merged with two other Richmond banks to become The Consolidated Bank and Trust Company, which grew to serve generations of Richmonders as an African-American owned institution.
Walker was the first American woman to become a self-made millionaire. She also started a line of African American hair care products, headed an insurance company, owned of a department store, and ran for governor of Virginia.
William Washington Browne
Born in 1849, William Washington Browne was a slave and Union soldier during the American Civil War. He is the founder of Richmond’s Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers, the nation’s first chartered Black financial institution. He also established insurance to provide the Black community with sick and death benefits and encouraged members to purchase land and engage in practices of temperance and thrift.
Founders of Unity Bank and Trust
John T. Hayden, Donald E. Sneed, Marvin E. Gilmore, and C. Bernard Fulp were tired of the discriminatory policies of banks towards the Black community. They founded Unity Bank and Trust to give equal economic opportunity to the Black residents in their community. They provided education to the community on investments, credit, and how banking works. In 2016, Unity Bank and Trust merged with other Black owned community banks to become OneUnited Bank. It is now the largest Black owned bank and was the first Black owned internet bank in America.
John Cromwell, Jr.
John C. Cromwell Jr. became the first Black Certified Public Accountant in 1921. He earned his Masters from Dartmouth, however was not allowed to sit for the CPA exam in Washington, D.C., Virginia, or Maryland because all spaces had experience requirements. After 15 years of waiting, he eventually got to sit for the exam in New Hampshire after the state passed legislation against the experience requirement. Cromwell taught high school Accounting in D.C. and in 1930 became the comptroller of Howard University.
Mary Thelma Washington
Mary Thelma Washington became the first Black CPA in 1943. After working for the country’s second African American CPA (Arthur J. Wilson), she started her own firm. Through her firm, she gave experience to many Black accountants wanting to become CPAs. During the time, white owned firms would not hire Black Americans. Her firm, Washington, Pittman, and McKeever, became one of the largest Black-owned CPA firms in the country.
This is just a handful of examples of pioneering Black Americans who pursued their careers despite racial discrimination and multiple barriers.