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Mary T. Washington
*Mary Washington was born on this date in 1906. She was a Black Certified Public Accountant (CPA).
Born in Vicksburg, Miss., Mary Thelma Morrison was the daughter of Daisy and William Morrison, a carpenter, who boasted to friends that his young daughter could read the entire newspaper. When she was 6, her mother died, and she went to Chicago to live with her maternal grandparents. She attended Wendell Phillips High School, where she excelled in math. After graduating from High School, Washington took a position at Binga State Bank, one of only a few black-owned banks in the 1920s. Arthur Wilson, the bank's vice president and Washington’s supervisor, took note of her bookkeeping skills and encouraged Washington to pursue her business degree. Wilson was an accomplished CPA, having the distinction of being only the second African American in the United States to earn his CPA license in 1923.
When she attended Northwestern University’s School of Chicago Business in the late 1930s, Washington found that she was the only woman in the program and the only Black female student. Being light-skinned, however, she was easily accepted as white, as Washington’s daughter, Barbara Shepherd, a retired Chicago Public School teacher, explained. Washington began building her tax-season clientele in 1939 and focused on serving the community of small Black-owned businesses in her area.
One of her early and long-time clients was S.B. Fuller, a self-made millionaire, and owner of the cosmetics company Fuller Products Company. Fuller came to rely heavily on Washington’s services and advice and later leased some of his business office space to her to accommodate her growing business. Washington earned her degree in 1941 and was able to serve her apprenticeship with Wilson. When she sat for the CPA licensing exam, again, she was the only woman in the room.
In 1943 she became the nation’s 13th Black CPA and the group's first woman to attain her license. She became a leader for future generations of accountants. The firm she began in her basement on the South Side of Chicago in 1939, known today as Washington, Pittman & McKeever, remains one of the largest black-owned firms in the nation. As time went by, Washington fostered the development of young African American CPAs who needed to serve apprenticeships to earn their CPA licenses.
Hiring was typically done through references from friends and associates. Frederick Ford, the vice chairman of the board at Draper & Kramer, the Chicago-based real estate firm, came to Washington looking to serve his apprenticeship in 1949. “None of the big CPA firms would hire Blacks, so Ms. Washington offered to let me come and work. She really opened the way for a number of black CPAs,” he said.
According to Theresa A. Hammond in her book A White-Collar Profession: African American CPAs Since 1921 (the University of North Carolina Press, 2002), aspiring young accountants would move across the country to have the opportunity to work for Washington. As a result of her generosity, by the 1960s, Chicago was recognized as having the largest number of Black CPAs of any city in the nation, most of who served the city’s significant Black community.
In Chicago’s tight-knit African American accounting community of the 1950s and 1960s, Washington was certainly a leading figure, having been associated with nearly every black CPA through one channel or another. To draw the community closer together, Washington threw annual holiday parties at her home, inviting her employees and the rest of the city’s achieving black CPAs to the event, as well as clients, many of whom remained lifelong friends and professional admirers.
Lester McKeever, Washington, Pittman, & McKeever’s managing partner and principal and former chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, came to work for Washington part-time during the busy tax season and while away from the Army. When he was called back, Washington petitioned for his early release from service but was denied. When his time in the Army was up, he returned to work at the firm full-time; it came to be known by today’s name in 1976.
Thanks to Washington’s long-time leadership, the firm she established and that McKeever continues to uphold now audits some of the largest accounts in the area; it is a joint auditor for the City of Chicago and Cook County, for example, audits several area universities, including Chicago State University and Western Illinois University, and handles the employee benefit plans for electric utility company Commonwealth Edison and printer RR Donnelly. Mary T. Washington passed away on July 14, 2005, at age 99. Her three daughters, two sons, and nine grandchildren survived her.