Those of us who grew up post-civil rights take for granted just how bad things used to be. Sure, if you were a generic white guy maybe your odds of scraping together a half-decent life weren’t too bad, but for everyone else life was a constant chess game of “Who Shall Oppress Me Today?” From jobs to housing to bank accounts, life was rough for anyone who at all deviated from the milquetoast majority.
Obviously there’s still progress to be made. Which is why it helps sometimes to think about just how far we as a society have come. For example, up until 1974 women needed a man to co-sign any credit application. Can you imagine, a grown-ass woman needing to bring a man along just to open a credit card? It seems wild when you consider it through our modern lens; however, it’s not that far away when you really stop to think about it.
Speaking of things that happened not that long ago, this year marks 100 years since the first black CPA was licensed in the United States. Unfortunately, the profession has a lot of work left to do on the topic of diversity and inclusion, having made little progress since John Cromwell Jr. was licensed. At the time he graduated from Dartmouth in 1906, it was impossible for him to meet the requirements for licensure due to needing experience, which he couldn’t get as no one would hire black accountants. In 1921, the state of New Hampshire waived the experience requirement for qualified candidates and Cromwell was finally able to sit for the exam. Even 40 years after he was licensed, he was the only black CPA in Washington, DC.
Cromwell paved the way for guys (and gals) like Lester McKeever, the octagenarian former chair of the Chicago Fed who struggled to find work in the 1950s as a black accountant.
Just check out this quote from a recent Black Enterprise interview in which McKeever recalls how he couldn’t even get interviews, much less client work, back in those days:
McKeever believes that mentorship and networking are important in your career. They were the link that helped him secure a job when major corporations were not hiring Black people.
“When I graduated from college, the Big 8 accounting firms and large corporations did not hire African Americans,” says Mckeever. “My university forced one firm to give me the courtesy of an interview. They said they couldn’t hire me because their clients wouldn’t accept me.”
Attitudes may have changed but representation still lags behind. It’s only in the last few years that the AICPA had its first black chairman. African Americans make up less than 1% of all licensed CPAs in the United States, a number that has remained largely unchanged for 40 years.
The key to real change, says McKeever, is giving back.
“Being Black limited your opportunities,” he said about his early career in the 1950s. “But showing true concern for your client’s success and working to improve your community provides unexpected benefits. When you give to others, you gain more than you give in trying to help.”
Who knows, maybe Gen Z is so far removed from segregation and civil rights that they’ll be the ones to spur true diversity. We can only hope (no pressure).