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Early Black-owned CPA firms spurred diversity efforts

February 03, 2022

A young Black professional poses at work

By Anita Dennis

Firms established by pioneering Black CPAs decades ago created an indelible legacy within the accounting profession. Built by Black CPAs who succeeded despite adversity, the firms continue to play an important role in the profession’s recruitment and advancement initiatives, and with the clients they serve. Here are a few examples.

Guiding others along the journey

Benjamin King Sr. became Maryland’s first Black CPA — and the nation’s 48th — in 1957. In trying to earn his CPA credential, he was unable to get hired even when he offered to work for free, despite his experience as an auditor with the Army Audit Agency. He moved from Washington, D.C., to Prince George’s County because Maryland had a less-restrictive experience requirement for the CPA license. After establishing Maryland residency status and passing the exam, he launched a firm with Maryland’s second African American CPA, Arthur M. Reynolds Sr. King and other new local Black CPAs kept other jobs because initially there wasn’t enough work to sustain their firms full time.

King’s firm was still able to help other young Black professionals become CPAs. “It was built on the premise of helping,” said Tony King, CPA, CGMA, Benjamin’s son. As the elder King’s career advanced and he became an adjunct lecturer at Morgan State University, a historically Black college and university, he invited its current and future accounting students to reach out to him for mentorships, internships, or job opportunities. “There are probably numerous Black CPAs in the area who can attribute their CPA credentials to him,” Tony King said. The elder King also recruited close to home. None of his children were allowed to get their driver’s license before they’d spent some time working in the firm. All five are accountants, and Tony and two sisters run King, King & Associates (KKA) today.

As noted in the Black CPA Centennial’s April article, “Breaking a Barrier: The First Black Partner of a Big Eight Firm,” Thomas S. Watson Jr. teamed up with another Black CPA, Robert Rice, to found Watson Rice & Company (now known as BCA Watson Rice LLP). Watson Rice was believed to be one of the largest Black-owned CPA firms in the world during the 1980s. Watson wanted to create a path to help other Black CPAs like himself achieve success in the accounting profession.

Seizing new opportunities

Although larger white-owned firms slowly began to hire Black professionals as the 20th century progressed, Black CPAs often left because they concluded it would be too difficult for a Black person to be named partner. “That was the catalyst” for the birth of many new Black-owned firms, according to George Willie, CPA, CGMA, managing partner of Bert Smith & Co.

At the same time, by the late 1960s and early 1970s, opportunities for minority-owned firms began to increase. Black businesses — including CPA firms — benefited from certain federal programs and prohibitions against discrimination in contracting and procurement. Black-owned firms were able to serve governments and agencies and to become advisers for an expanding population of Black professionals and entrepreneurs, according to Willie. And although the large firms may have lagged in promoting Black professionals, they did often bring in smaller Black-owned firms on engagements or refer work to them, especially on government accounting engagements, another factor in the minority firms’ success, he said. In fact, Willie said, alliances between large firms and smaller minority-owned firms — such as one between BDO and Black-owned firms, in which his firm is involved — can be critical to the smaller firms’ survival. Given the challenges facing many minority-owned firms, “collaboration with and tangible support from the major firms, through alliance, may offer a future” for smaller firms struggling to succeed.

Recognizing that diversity is an economic imperative, the leaders of Black-owned firms today take a variety of steps to benefit from contributions by people with a variety of backgrounds, as two firms’ efforts show. Willie’s firm, for example, continues to be involved in major engagements with several large national firms. That enables staff from both practices to get to know each other and their firms, Willie noted. At KKA, many of the firm’s associates have been people of color from outside the United States, and the firm has nonminority clients, as well. BCA Watson Rice LLP also has a long history of having firm associates and partners from diverse backgrounds and was supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts well before the term was coined.

Expanding the talent pool

Thomas S. Watson Jr. taught his son Timothy, CPA, about the profession. During Timothy’s childhood, his father introduced him to audit engagements and computers and often took him to business meetings. “I didn’t always understand what was going on, but I learned enough to know I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps,” he said.

Benjamin King Sr. influenced a young family friend to become a CPA. The woman was about to start college and told King Sr. that she was going to study math and become a teacher, according to Tony King. In one sitting, King Sr. successfully convinced her to change her career plans, pointing out all the CPA profession had to offer.

However, given the low percentage of Black CPAs, Black students are less likely to learn about the profession from family or friends. Tony King advocates for efforts to introduce students of color to the profession in high school before they decide on a college major. “They’re not going to change their major when they’re a sophomore or junior,” he said.

Improving the number of Black CPAs will require, among other things, getting the word out, said Willie, who speaks frequently about the profession to minority student groups. He believes the message should emphasize the many opportunities the profession can provide and the financial rewards it can offer. He recommended that other Black CPAs and firms get involved in efforts to share their experiences with Black young people “to present a profession that represents success.”

To attract and retain Black professionals, firms will have to offer them an opportunity to take on challenging assignments and to advance as their expertise grows, Willie said. “That is the most critical issue,” Willie said. “That is the reason our staff stays with us.”

The Black CPA Centennial was a yearlong effort to honor, celebrate, and build upon the progress Black CPAs have made in shaping the accounting professionThe celebration is a collaborative effort of the AICPA, Diverse Organization of Firms, Illinois CPA Society, National Association of Black Accountants, and National Society of Black CPAs. This article was originally published by the Illinois CPA Society.