A Deep Dive Into The Legacy of the First African-American Accountant 

A Deep Dive Into The Legacy of the First African-American Accountant 

Black History Month offers a chance to celebrate Black Americans’ significant contributions and achievements across our history, especially those who have played pioneering roles in the accounting field. One such figure is John Wesley Cromwell Jr.

This prominent figure broke barriers in the accounting profession and left an enduring legacy that continues to inspire. Let’s delve deeper into the life and accomplishments of the first African-American accountant and share some insights on how you could show your appreciation for African American History Month.


Beyond the Ledger: The Legacy of the First Black Accountant 

John Wesley Cromwell Jr. was a multi-talented individual with a deep intellectual curiosity and a strong ambition for opportunities. As the nation’s first black CPA, Cromwell achieved this milestone in 1921.

Cromwell was highly suitable for his significant role in history. Along with other pioneering CPAs of color, he faced challenges, which created opportunities for future generations of black accountants.


An educated achiever.

John Cromwell completed his college education in 1906 when most Americans did not pursue higher education. Only 1 in 3,600 black individuals hold a college degree while whites were five times more likely than blacks to attend college. Various factors, including the historical denial of education and post-slavery obstacles, contributed to this disparity.


Overcoming barriers to licensure.

While a skilled accountant, Cromwell faced systemic obstacles on his path to licensure. At the time, most states mandated that CPA candidates complete accounting work under a licensed CPA. However, many firms rejected black applicants, fearing backlash from white clients.

Yet Cromwell persevered. He returned to his hometown and taught mathematics at the esteemed Paul Laurence Dunbar High School to improve his leadership skills. Despite setbacks, he eventually achieved his goal against all odds.


Persistence leads to success.

Despite early barriers to licensure, Cromwell showed perseverance. In 1921, he finally obtained CPA certification after New Hampshire eased certain experience requirements. For more than 15 years after college, he stuck to his goal. While waiting for the exam, he helped the black community, teaching math and working as a University Comptroller.

After getting licensed, Cromwell supported black-owned businesses – banks, shops, clubs, and churches. He became a cornerstone for economic growth in minority communities.


Cromwell’s legacy continues.

Cromwell’s perseverance as the nation’s first black CPA paved the way for greater diversity in the accounting world. This shows his inspirational legacy continues into the modern era.

In 2019, William Campfield became the first African American accountant inducted into the prestigious Accounting Hall of Fame. Coming from a lineage of slavery, Campfield overcame tremendous odds. His recognition signifies the immense progress driven by pioneers like Cromwell.


The Importance of Representation 

Cromwell overcame tremendous barriers so future generations could access more opportunities in the field. However, representation remains an ongoing challenge. In fact, accountants and business professionals are concerned about a significant decline in CPAs, especially in the United States.

According to the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), an estimated 75 percent of current public accounting CPAs are anticipated to retire in the next 15 years.¹

This widespread shortage of accountants nationwide emphasizes the significance of diversity in accounting. To ensure the profession’s success and promote essential financial governance for the economy, it is important to give priority to diversity and offer greater support for representation in the field.

Read More: How to Foster an Inclusive Working Environment 


Empowering Marginalized Communities

When individuals see people who look like them succeeding in various fields, whether it be in business, politics, or the arts, it sends a powerful message: “You can do it too.”

The increased presence of African-Americans in the accounting field is truly inspiring for future generations. It provides young accountants from underrepresented communities with successful role models who share their backgrounds. This helps to break down any perceived barriers to entry and encourages more diversity in the field.

Related Reading: Why Workplace Diversity and Inclusion Is a Must-Have, Not a Nice-To-Have 


Building Inclusive Workplaces

African-American accountants bring unique cultural perspectives and insights that are invaluable in understanding the financial needs of diverse communities. Cultural competence is essential for building trust and providing tailored financial advice that considers the specific circumstances and goals of clients from different backgrounds.


Breaking Down Barriers

Representation is a catalyst for breaking down systemic barriers. Society moves towards a more equitable future by ensuring diverse voices are heard and respected. This is particularly important in accounting, where only 2 percent of CPAs identify as black.² These groups have a history of underrepresentation, challenging the established norms and paving the way for a more level playing field.

African-Americans in the field contribute to the broader effort to address disparities in representation and opportunity. By actively promoting diversity, the industry takes a move towards creating a fairer and more equitable profession.


Showcasing Support During African American History Month 

Here are ways to maximize your involvement and show appreciation:


1. Educate Yourself

Take the time to learn about significant figures in Black history, especially those who contributed to the accounting and finance fields. This can involve reading articles, watching documentaries, and participating in online courses.

Additionally, individuals can initiate knowledge-sharing sessions within their teams, such as lunch and learn sessions or integrated segments in regular team meetings, fostering a culture of continuous learning and appreciation for diversity. Ultimately, sharing insights about the contributions of Black professionals in the accounting field helps build a more inclusive workplace environment.


2. Building Community and Careers Through Professional Organizations

Black professional networks provide vital spaces for African Americans to connect, share opportunities, and address workplace challenges tied to their minority status across sectors like business, healthcare, and STEM. Joining enables members to forge meaningful relationships, enhance careers through mentorship and skill-building, and benefit from community support systems.

Active engagement in programs, volunteering expertise, consistent online participation, and exchanging insights with culturally aligned peers maximize these groups’ advantages.

While initially tailored for the black community, some organizations may welcome non-black allies in supportive roles. Those interested in joining as non-black members are encouraged to acquaint themselves with the group’s mission and participation guidelines.

Irrespective of background, all members are urged to engage respectfully, share skills and resources, and emphasize mutual understanding. Collaborations centered on career advancement have the potential to yield positive outcomes for professionals across diverse communities.


3. Organize Inclusive Events

Another impactful way for job professionals to show support during Black History Month is by actively organizing or participating in inclusive events at your workplace. Proposing seminars, panel discussions, or cultural awareness activities can create a forum for open dialogue and shared experiences.

These events contribute to a more inclusive workplace culture. It also allows colleagues to gain insights, share perspectives, and collectively appreciate the rich contributions of Black individuals in various fields, including accounting and finance.


4. Promote Diversity and Inclusion

Advocate for diversity and inclusion initiatives within your organization. For instance, you can engage in open discussions about the importance of diversity, sharing personal experiences and insights to create a more inclusive atmosphere. Non-black professionals can act as allies by actively supporting and amplifying the voices of their black colleagues, advocating for equal opportunities and fair representation.

Moreover, employees can participate in or organize workshops and training sessions that focus on cultural sensitivity, addressing unconscious bias, and an inclusive work environment. They can collaborate with their organizations to implement policies that ensure equitable hiring practices, mentorship programs, and career development opportunities for individuals from diverse backgrounds.


5. Support Black-Owned Businesses

Show support for Black-owned businesses, whether it’s recommending them to colleagues or incorporating their products and services into workplace activities. They can also integrate products and services from black-owned businesses into workplace activities, such as events, conferences, or company outings.


Diversity in Progress 

While recognizing the strides made since Cromwell’s historic achievement, it’s crucial to acknowledge the ongoing work required to enhance diversity in the accounting profession. Addressing disparities in wealth, health, education, and representation remains crucial.

It’s important to look back not just at the progress made since Cromwell’s achievement but also at how much more work lies ahead to improve access to and awareness of the CPA profession. While progress has been made, challenges persist.

This is a call to contribute to this journey actively. In championing inclusivity, fostering collaborations, and staying informed, you play a pivotal role in shaping a more diverse and equitable future for the accounting industry.

Read More: A Call To Diversify Tech: Talent Is Everywhere, Opportunity Is Not 



With DAVIS Companies, every voice is heard, every talent is valued, and every opportunity is accessible. Your career path is unique, and we’re here to ensure it thrives in an environment that fosters diversity and inclusion.

We believe in creating opportunities that celebrate your unique skills and experiences. Take the initiative to explore a career with us in professional, technical, IT, manufacturing, and engineering roles. And together, we can pave the way for a more inclusive and fulfilling future. Contact us today and be part of a team that values you for being you.



1 “The Growing Shortage of Accountants and CPAs.” Controllers Council, 21 June 2021, controllerscouncil.org/the-growing-shortage-of-accountants-and-cpas/.

2 “Becker’s Commitment to Black CPAs | Becker.” www.becker.com, www.becker.com/blog/diversity/becker-commitment-to-black-accountants. Accessed 6 Jan. 2024.

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