A White-Collar Profession: African American Certified Public Accountants since 1921

A White-Collar Profession: African American Certified Public Accountants since 1921

A White-Collar Profession: African American Certified Public Accountants since 1921

A White-Collar Profession: African American Certified Public Accountants since 1921


Among the major professions, certified public accountancy has the most severe underrepresentation of African Americans: less than one percent of CPAs are black. Theresa Hammond explores the history behind this statistic and chronicles the courage and determination of African Americans who sought to enter the field. In the process, she expands our understanding of the links between race, education, and economics.

Drawing on interviews with pioneering black CPAs, among other sources, Hammond sets the stories of black CPAs against the backdrop of the rise of accountancy as a profession, the particular challenges that African Americans trying to enter the field faced, and the strategies that enabled some blacks to become CPAs. Prior to the 1960s, few white-owned accounting firms employed African Americans. Only through nationwide networks established by the first black CPAs did more African Americans gain the requisite professional experience. The civil rights era saw some progress in integrating the field, and black colleges responded by expanding their programs in business and accounting. In the 1980s, however, the backlash against affirmative action heralded the decline of African American participation in accountancy and paved the way for the astonishing lack of diversity that characterizes the field today.


When Theodora Fonteneau Rutherford graduated summa cum laude from Howard University in 1923, she dreamed of becoming a certified public accountant (CPA). Her favorite accounting professor had encouraged the talented nineteen-year-old to strive for the pinnacle of the accounting profession, providing her with questions from prior CPA examinations to help her prepare. She earned a scholarship to Columbia University's graduate school of business, and she hoped that New York would provide opportunities that had been unavailable in the southern states in which she had been raised. Although she was bright, well-educated, hardworking, and determined, Ruther— ford was prevented from achieving her goal for the next thirty-seven years. When she finally became a CPA in 1960, she was one of only a few dozen African American CPAs in the entire country.

This book chronicles the stories of several of the pioneering African American men and women who managed to surmount the obstacles to becoming a CPA and whose history has been all but ignored. Their experiences paralleled those of African Americans who pursued other professions in the twentieth century. Segregated educational institutions posed challenges to acquiring the requisite expertise; white employers, whether hospitals, law firms, or CPA firms, were reluctant to hire African Americans; clientele were limited to the economically disadvantaged African American community; and professional societies held meetings in segregated hotels or excluded African Americans outright. The stories of these individuals provide a new and important perspective on the history of the professions, the perspective of those who fought to join elite occupations in which they were not welcome.

In the 1920s, African Americans were excluded from most professions. Exclusion—whether based on educational achievement or on race—is a tradi-

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