Celebration of History

A Celebration of Black History in Accounting

Black History Month – and every day - is an important opportunity for us to celebrate the important contributions and achievements of blacks throughout our history, including Black people that have been trailblazing in the field of accounting.  Now, more than ever, we must raise our voices to celebrate - and, where necessary, insist - that society continue to recognize black leaders, businesses, artists, educators, culture and tradition.  We each experience moments of joy, honor, activism and reflection.  But, it's more than sharing stories to remind us of how far we have come.  It is also an opportunity to deepen our commitment to educate, engage and empower.   Below you will find just a few of the amazing Black trailblazers in accounting and finance.  


Jesse B. Blayton
"Dean of Negro Accountants"

Jesse Blayton, Sr. was known affectionately as the "Dean of Negro Accountants" because of his tireless dedication the and training of African American Accountants. Blayton, Sr. was born in Fallis, Oklahoma in 1897 and went on to study at the University of Chicago. After becoming a practicing accountant 1922, he later sat for and passed the CPA exam in 1928 making him only the fourth Black accountant in the United States at the time. He worked as a professor at the University of Atlanta where he pushed black students to join the profession, despite the lack of opportunity.  Blayton eventually became the President of an Atlanta area bank and later became known for the purchase of Atlanta radio station WERD in 1949.

Mary T. Washington
First Black Woman CPA

Mary T. Washington became the first female black American CPA in 1943 and was the thirteenth person to enter the profession. Mentored by the second black CPA, Arthur Wilson, Washington graduated from Northwestern University in 1941. While completing her degree, Washington opened her own accounting firm in her basement 1939, largely serving small black-owned companies. Her firm, which would later become Washington Pittman and McKeever eventually became one of the largest Black-owned CPA firms in the nation. Muhammed Ali was her client early in his career!

Maggie Lena Walker
First Woman Bank President of Any Race to Charter a Bank in the United States.

Maggie Lena Walker was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1867 to parents who were former slaves. Mrs. Walker graduated at the very top of her class in 1883. She then taught grade school for three years at the Lancaster School, at the same time she took classes in accounting and business. Mrs. Walker became an important community organizer and started a newspaper for the St. Luke organization in 1902 called the St. Luke Herald. After the success of the newspaper she started the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank and became the first woman in the United States to charter a bank. She was also the bank's first president. During the Great Depression two other banks in Richmond merged with St. Luke to become The Consolidated Bank and Trust Company which continues to be the oldest black-owned and black-run bank in the United States. 

The Founding “NABA Nine” 

In December 1969, nine black men met in New York City to discuss the unique challenges and limited opportunities they faced in the accounting profession. In that year, there were only 136 black Certified Public Accountants (CPAs) out of a total of 100,000 in the United States. This group wanted to establish an organization to address the concerns of minorities entering the accounting profession and to make a commitment to professional and academic excellence.

John W. Cromwell, Jr.
First Black CPA
In 1921, John W. Cromwell, Jr., became the first black 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 there.

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 of Columbia.

Bernadine Coles Gines
First Black Woman CPA
in the State of New York

In 1954, Ms. Gines became the first black American female CPA in the state of New York and the 34th African-American CPA in the United States.  She spent most of her career in the employ of the Comptroller of the City of New York, where she held various titles in the accounting service and in the computer programming service. During the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, she worked closely with outside vendors to restructure the city’s accounting records.

In 1946, Ms. Gines received a B.S. in business administration from Virginia State College (now Virginia State University), ranking No. 1 in her class. In 1947 she received an MBA from NYU.  She is the sister of Dr. Ruth Coles Harris, the first African-American female CPA in the state of Virginia.

Ruth Coles Harris
First Black Woman CPA
in the State of Virginia

When most people would have quit, Ruth Coles Harris persevered. Despite Jim Crow-era policies that forced her to leave Virginia to continue her postsecondary education, Ruth returned and eventually became the 1st black American female CPA in the state. 

Ruth Coles Harris is the great-granddaughter of slaves and grew up during the Great Depression. She graduated at the top of her class at Virginia State College (later University) in 1948 with a degree in business. As an black American woman in the age of Jim Crow, Harris was obliged to leave the state to pursue her education further, and she earned an MBA from New York University in 1949. She joined the faculty at Virginia Union University and taught in the commerce department. During her nearly forty-eight year tenure, the small department expanded into the Sydney Lewis School of Business. As the business school's first director, Harris oversaw the development of its comprehensive curriculum and the growth of its enrollment to more than 400 students. At her retirement in 1997, she was named a Distinguished Professor Emerita.

Hoping to inspire her students, in 1962 Harris took and passed the two-day examination to be a certified public accountant at a time when there were fewer than 100 African American CPAs in the nation. She became the first black woman in Virginia to be certified.

During her career Harris served on several state commissions and on local and national community and professional boards of directors. In 1977 she received her doctorate in education from the College of William and Mary. In 1998 Virginia Union awarded Harris with a Doctor of Humane Letters in recognition of her many contributions to that institution and her field.  To hear an interview with Ruth Coles Harris, CLICK HERE.