John W Cromwell

John W Cromwell

John W Cromwell

In 1921, John W. Cromwell, Jr., became the first African-American to earn the designation of CPA, some 25 years after the first CPA certificate was granted in the United States. Cromwell was a member of one of the leading African-American families in the country. His father was a teacher, political activist, attorney, and chief examiner for the U.S. Post Office. Cromwell’s older sister, Otelia, was the first African-American alumna of Smith College and went on to earn a Ph.D. in English at Yale. Cromwell was exceptional himself. He graduated from Dartmouth as the best student in science in the class of 1906. A year later he completed his master’s degree there.

The profession most open to African-Americans at the time was teaching. After finishing at Dartmouth, Cromwell returned home to Washington, D.C., and became a mathematics teacher at the Dunbar School, the most prestigious black high school in the country.

Fifteen years passed before John Cromwell became a CPA. He was not allowed to sit for the CPA exam in Washington, D.C., Virginia, or Maryland. In addition, all those places had experience requirements. The biggest barrier to African-Americans in becoming CPAs has always been the experience requirement: In order to become a CPA you have to work for a CPA, and for the first two-thirds of the last century, most firms would not hire African-Americans. 

But in 1921 New Hampshire had just passed legislation enabling applicants to get a CPA certificate without meeting an experience requirement. Cromwell traveled to New Hampshire to take the exam.

After becoming a CPA, he continued to teach high school while practicing accountancy in the District of Columbia. He worked almost exclusively within the black community, serving lawyers, churches, restaurants, and funeral homes. In 1930, he became comptroller of Howard University. And in the early 1960s—some 40 years after earning his certificate—John Cromwell was still the only African-American CPA in the District of