Today marks the beginning of black history month for 2023. All over our cultural landscape, you can see headlines for African Americans accomplishing great things; In business, Rosalind Brewer (Walgreens CEO), Rashida Jones (MSNBC President), Cynt Marshall (Dallas Mavericks CEO), Mellody Hobson (Starbucks Chair of BOD), Marvin Ellison (Lowes President & CEO), and many more have all recently earned important roles in shaping the country's economy. Angela Bassett, Brian Tyree Henry, Tems & Rihanna have been nominated for Oscars in 2023 and represent the talent and diversity of the entertainment industry. While many African American individuals are setting "firsts" in their respective fields and companies, this begs the question: who was the first African American CPA?
The Cromwell Family
John Wesley Cromwell, Jr. is credited as the first African American CPA in the United States. He comes from a family that embodied and encouraged intellectualism and perseverance in the face of injustice. His father, John Wesley Cromwell, Sr., was the truest form of a self-made man; born a slave in Virginia ion 1846, he bought his freedom and moved to Pennsylvania, taught in historically black schools and organizations, became a lawyer and politician representing Virginia, started a career in journalism (both writing as well as co-founding a publishing company), and helped form the American Negro Academy in Washington DC. Despite the cruelty of his upbringing, he managed to build a legacy of influence in foundational historically black education systems. Perhaps it was this dedication that inspired his son, John Wesley Jr., to pursue a career in professional services and academia.
John Wesley Cromwell, Jr.'s Journey
John Wesley, Jr. attended Dartmouth University and excelled academically, earning the Thayer Prize in mathematics and earning his Bachelor's and Master's degrees. He also studied astronomy. Upon graduation, he experienced the obstacle that nearly all of his African American peers faced: a lack of firms willing to hire African American accountants. This work experience was a legal requirement for a CPA license. So, he decided to return to his hometown of Washington DC to teach mathematics and multiple languages. Years later, fortune turned in his favor: New Hampshire was the first state to drop the working experience requirement of their CPA license. He proceeded to pass the Uniform CPA Examination and officially become the first African American CPA in the nation in 1921.
John Wesley, Jr. used his new license to better the community around him. While simultaneously keeping his teaching position, he became a prominent accountant in Washington DC for black-owned businesses, which were thriving in the U Street area. His commitment to furthering the education of African American youth, while bolstering the economy of black-owned businesses, demonstrate the importance of education and how it can blossom into real change in society. Throughout the rest of his life, he was a generous supporter of the alumni program at Dartmouth University. He was a family man; his daughter Adelaide became a professor of sociology at Boston University.
Success stories such as John Wesley, Jr. - as well as the generation of Cromwells before and after him - are a true inspiration to the profession and to the nation as a whole. Being a CPA is all about keeping your community thriving; and if there was ever an accountant who cared about his community, it would be the John Wesley, Jr. and the Cromwell family.
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