Black CPA Centenary: Meet The Big Eight’s First Black Partner
Fifty years after the first black CPA received his license, Elmer J. Whiting Jr. crossed a major hurdle in 1971, becoming the first black partner of a Big Eight firm, as the largest national accounting firms were called. at the time. Whiting was already a trailblazer, having been the first black CPA in Ohio and the 25th black CPA in the country. His journey demonstrates the significant impact that leaders like Whiting have had within and beyond the profession.
When Whiting started his career he was so eager to start a CPA business that on his honeymoon he traveled from his hometown of Cleveland to Detroit to meet Richard Austin, a successful black practitioner, according to Professor Theresa. Hammond’s “A White-Collar Profession: Certified African-American Accountants Since 1921.” Whiting also met with Mary T. Washington Wylie, the first black female CPA, who hired many young black accountants at her Chicago firm so that she ‘they can gain the experience they need to qualify for a license. In an interview with Hammond, Whiting told him, “I met them because I wanted to know where the alligators were when you started a practice,” referring to the challenges a black CPA would face.
Whiting graduated from Howard University in the 1940s and went on to earn an MBA from Case Western University and a law degree from Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. In an oral history project recording for Cleveland State University, his wife, Carmel, described him as someone with a strong vision for his future. Although he passed the CPA exam on the first try, he found it impossible to gain the experience he needed to become a CPA because white-owned businesses believed their clients would not work with black staff. . Unwavering, he finally obtained his bachelor’s degree in 1950 by successfully requesting that accounting work be considered valid experience. Once her own Cleveland business went live, she provided the required licensing experience to the next five black CPAs in Ohio, including Whiting’s full brother. Whiting told Hammond he didn’t have to recruit. “I had a parade of children who came here looking for a job. There was no one else to turn to, ”he said.
Whiting was also actively involved in other efforts to open doors for blacks. By mid-century, many companies said they were ready to hire black people, but could not find any who were qualified for professional jobs. With the encouragement of the Urban League, Whiting would apply for jobs at these organizations to demonstrate that qualified black people did exist, his wife recalled in her oral history. During his career, his long list of accomplishments included serving on a Cleveland city finance committee under Carl Stokes, the first black mayor of a major American city and a friend of Whiting Law School. .
“He was important to the profession even before he became the Black Big Eight’s first partner,” said Sam Johnson, vice president of accounts for the Americas at EY.
A symbol, and more
In 1971, Ernst & Ernst, as it was called at the time, approached Whiting about the merger of its existing practice. Although a small but growing number of black CPAs were able to set up their own firms in the early to mid-twentieth century, none of them reached the level of leadership in a national company. This made Whiting a powerful symbol of what was possible, according to Johnson.
“To look up and see someone in the firm that looks like you is really inspiring” for other black CPAs, Johnson said. Additionally, for the company’s white partners, “Whiting was a colleague who looked different but was also capable,” he said, which helped to shatter any negative stereotypes about professionals. black. His presence inspired a conversation within the firm about the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion that continues today.
On another front, “Whiting put a face to a profession that was not well known in our community,” Johnson said. While people in underserved communities may have known the doctors, lawyers, and teachers, they may not have known the opportunities in the accounting profession if prominent leaders like Whiting had not made a name for themselves on the job. the national stage, Johnson said.
An example of Whiting’s impact can be seen in the career of one of his employees, Thomas Watson Jr. When Whiting merged his company with Ernst & Ernst, Watson, who had an entrepreneurial spirit, decided to model Whiting’s leadership and go it alone. . He partnered with another black CPA, Robert Rice, to found Watson Rice & Co. (now known as BCA Watson Rice LLP), which at one point during the 1980s was the largest corporation in Black-owned CPAs in the world, according to Watson’s. son, Timothy Watson, who is also a CPA.
Like Whiting, Thomas Watson illustrated a path to success. Timothy Watson recalls spending a lot of time at his father’s Washington, DC company as a child, sitting at audits and business meetings. “I didn’t always understand what was going on, but I learned enough to know that I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps,” he said.
To be the best
When Whiting died in 1995, Mayor Stokes’ brother Louis, congressman from Cleveland, read him a tribute in the Congressional Record. He noted, “Those of us who had the privilege of knowing Elmer will always remember him as a trailblazer and a champion.”
“Being the first to everything was just never enough for him,” said Mark McBride, a black CPA colleague and lawyer who spoke at a ceremony dedicating a portrait of Whiting at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. after his death. “Being the best at whatever he did was more important to Elmer.”
For young black CPAs who worked with Whiting and those who simply learned from his accomplishments, he opened new doors and career opportunities.
the Centenary of the black CPA is a year-long effort to honor, celebrate and build on the progress black CPAs have made in shaping the accounting profession.. The celebration is a collaborative effort of the AICPA, the Diverse Business Organization, the Illinois CPA Society, the National Association of Black Accountants, and the National Society of Black CPAs.
This article is the third in a series; the first two are: Meet the first black CPA and Meet the first black female CPA.