A Brief History of Black Women in Accounting
Photo by Andre Hunter via Unsplash
The CPA path is not without its challenges in 2020. While the set of rules is different from state to state, most jurisdictions outline that individuals looking to become CPAs have to hold at minimum a Bachelor’s degree and somewhere between 1-3 years of public accounting experience.
Now, imagine that you’re no longer in the age where you can connect with other business professional women on Twitter or simply sign up to sit for the exam. Access to the world of accounting just 100 years ago was razor-thin, particularly for Black women. Laws in place barred Black Americans from sitting for the CPA exam, getting hired by firms, and getting promoted.
Theresa A. Hammond discusses these obstacles in her book, A White Collar Profession: African American Certified Public Accountants, addressing the experience requirement in particular:
“For most of the twentieth century, virtually no whites would hire and train an African American to become a CPA, justifying this by claiming that clients would not tolerate an African American’s involvement in their financial affairs.
The experience requirement constituted an extremely effective barrier; by 1965, there were only one hundred African American CPAs-one in one thousand CPAs.”
Despite the walls built around the finance sector, Black Americans fought to break down the divisions brick by brick. The industry, however, made every attempt to keep these barriers intact. According to Hammond:
“By the end of the 1930s, there were almost 27,000 certified public accountants in the United States. Eight were African American.”
Of these eight, all were men.
So, what about Black women in accounting?
Theodora Rutherford graduated summa cum laude from Howard University’s School of Commerce and Finance in 1923 at 19.
During her studies, her accounting professor, Orlando C. Thornton, helped her win scholarships to Columbia University and Harvard University. Rutherford chose to attend Columbia, as she believed she would have more employment opportunities in the city.
In 1924, Rutherford became the first Black woman to graduate with a Master’s degree in accounting from Columbia University, where she was the only Black woman.
After graduating, she was unable to put her Master’s degree to use as she did not meet New York’s experience requirements. Despite this, she was soon commissioned by President John W. Davis of West Virginia State College to start a business department at the school. She agreed, establishing the department and working at the school for eight years.
For the next 24 years, Rutherford worked outside of finance. But, after a rule change in the late 1950s, she became the first Black woman CPA in West Virginia and the first Black woman member of the West Virginia Society of Public Accountants.
Rutherford, in an interview, put it simply:
“In 1958, 34 years after I received my Master’s degree from Columbia University with a major in accounting, I became one.”
Mary Thelma Washington
Mary Thelma Washington became the first Black woman CPA in 1943, and the 13th Black American in accounting overall. She started out as an assistant for Arthur J. Wilson, the second Black CPA in the United States, at Binga State Bank of Chicago, one of the country’s largest Black-owned banks.
Wilson mentored Washington, advising her to study business at Northwestern University so she could become a CPA.
While studying at Northwestern, Washington started her own accounting firm in 1939—out of her basement. The firm worked mainly with small, Black-owned businesses and clientele as Washington was eager to uplift and give back to her community. Among her client roster is the infamous Muhammed Ali!
Her firm eventually became Washington, Pittman, and McKeever, growing into one of the largest Black-owned CPA firms in the United States.
Dr. Larzette Hale-Wilson
Via Utah State University, Jon M. Huntsman School of Business
Dr. Larzette Hale-Wilson was the first Black woman to become a CPA in the state of Georgia, but she didn’t stop there. She was also the first Black woman CPA to earn a Ph.D. in accounting.
Dr. Hale-Wilson graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor’s degree in business administration and secondary education in 1937 from Langston University, as Oklahoma’s two state universities did not allow Black Americans to enroll.
She graduated with her Master’s degree in accounting and finance in 1943 and passed the CPA exam in 1951, establishing her own office in Atlanta by 1955.
Dr. Hale-Wilson went on to have a long and varied career, serving as Chair of the Supervisory Committee of the Utah State University Credit Union in 1974, the 17th International President of Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) Sorority Inc, and heading the School of Accountancy at Utah State University.
During her time as the International President of AKA, she founded the Heritage Series, which highlights the accomplishments of Black women.
Bernadine Coles Gines
Pictured on the right, via Accounting Today
Bernadine Coles Gines was one of many Black women who had to move around the country in order to find access to the opportunities that she was more than qualified for.
She graduated first in her class from Virginia State College in 1946 with a Bachelor’s degree in business administration but moved to New York as the state had a reputation for less discrimination and more opportunity for Black Americans.
In 1947, she graduated with an MBA from New York University but continued to struggle with finding employment in finance. She finally found a Black-owned firm in Manhattan, Lucas & Tucker, but the firm did not hire women at the time.
Gines was able to get her foot in the door with a small Jewish-owned firm in 1949 and became the first Black woman CPA in New York in 1954. This made her the 34th Black CPA in the country.
She went on to work with the City of New York Office of the Comptroller.
Ruth Coles Harris
Pictured on the right, via Accounting Today
Ruth Coles Harris, Bernadine Coles Gines’ sister, also pursued a career in finance.
Much like her sister, she left Virginia to continue her education, as Jim Crow policies made it impossible for her to advance within the state. Eventually, Harris returned to Virginia and was the first Black woman accountant in the state in 1963.
Harris became a faculty member at Virginia Union University, teaching in the Commerce Department. She ultimately expanded the department into the Sydney Lewis School of Business, developing into the school’s first director.
After a long career, she retired in 1997 and was named a Distinguished Professor Emerita.
Back to the Present
The landscape of accounting and finance is difficult to get into and move through. The 2017/2018 data shows that Black/African American individuals make up 2% of CPAs, compared to White individuals, who make up 84% of CPAs.
In fact, the numbers decrease across each milestone in the CPA path, showing that Black/African American individuals make up 10% of enrollments for Bachelor’s degrees, but only 6% of graduates from a Bachelor’s/Master’s program.
Further, Black/African American individuals comprise 4% of recently graduated hires, 4% of professional staff, 2% of CPAs, and 1% of partners. By contrast, White individuals steadily increase across each of these milestones, making up 91% of partners.
But, as shown by the women who make the history of Black women in accounting, don’t let these numbers discourage you! Black women in finance have not had it easy—but time and time again, they persevere no matter the conditions.
While there is still much more room to grow (and more space to take), there have also been resounding accomplishments.
The National Association of Black Accountants was formed in 1969, serving Black people in the finance industry as they climb the corporate ladder and innovate in the profession.
More recently, Kimberly-Ellison Taylor became the first Black chairman (or better, chairwoman) of the AICPA in 2016 and was recognized as one of the “100 Most Influential People in Accounting” by Accounting Today.
The next time you find yourself struggling over a hurdle in your path, remember those who came before you.
In particular, Dr. Hale-Wilson, in an interview with Linda Segall, has tender words of advice for you as you move forward:
“I would advise all young people thinking about public accounting as a career—especially African Americans: Work hard. Accounting is an excellent field to be in. If you are serious about it, you can go far.”
Who can argue with that?
NABA, Inc. A Celebration of History: https://www.nabainc.org/celebrationofhistory
Journal of Accountancy, A History of Determination: https://www.journalofaccountancy.com/issues/2005/oct/ahistoryofdetermination.html
The History Makers, Larzette Hale-Wilson biography: https://www.thehistorymakers.org/biography/larzette-hale-wilson-44