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Washington, Mary T.

Mary T. Washington

1906–2005

Accountant

Mary T. Washington was the first African-American woman to become a certified public accountant (CPA) in the United States, and she was the 13th African American to enter the profession. Her influence extended beyond her pioneer status as she helped train a whole generation of younger black CPAs, even though in so doing she was creating competition for her own growing firm. Washington's partner Hiram Pittman, whom she hired as a newly minted CPA, described their firm as an Underground Railroad for black accountants, who came from across the United States to gain work experience. With her exacting but warm personality, Washington was a central figure in Chicago's large African-American business community in the middle years of the twentieth century.

Washington was born Mary Thelma Morrison in Vicks-burg, Mississippi, on April 21, 1906. Her father, a carpenter, was proud of her ability to read an entire newspaper. After her mother died when she was six, Washington was raised by her mother's parents in Chicago and was a star math student at Wendell Phillips High School. She worked late afternoons and weekends as a bookkeeper at Chicago's Douglas National Bank. After she graduated, she moved on to Binga State Bank, one of the city's prominent black-owned businesses in the 1920s. "She was just determined to achieve the highest thing she could achieve, and just set her goals high." her daughter Barbara Shepherd told Barbara Sherlock of the Chicago Tribune. In 1927 she married Seymour Washington; the couple had one daughter, Barbara, before divorcing in 1935.

At Binga State Bank, Washington became assistant to cashier and vice president Arthur J. Wilson, the country's second black CPA and the first in Illinois. In Wilson she found a mentor who inspired her even after the bank folded. She enrolled in an accounting program at Northwestern University's School of Business. She was the only woman in her class, but the issue of her blackness didn't come up—her skin was so light that she could pass for white if she chose to. While attending Northwestern, Washington opened an accounting and tax preparation business in the basement of her home in 1939. Her new husband, taxicab mechanic Donald Wylie, supported her ambitions and sometimes cooked dinners for Washington and the crowd of staffers she hired to work around the clock during tax season. Washington continued to use her first husband's surname professionally, but was also known as Mary T. Washington Wylie after her second marriage. That marriage produced a son, Donald Wylie Jr., and the couple adopted three more children.

Washington graduated from Northwestern in 1941 and did a required period of apprenticeship with Wilson. She passed the state's CPA exam in 1943 (once again as the only woman in the testing room) and became the first black female CPA in the country. There would not be another until 1968. Washington's firm, Mary T. Washington and Co., was flourishing as blacks joined the military during World War II and spent their earnings at new South Side businesses. Those businesses, including the cosmetics firm Fuller Products, sought out Washington's services. As her own business grew, she found a second mentor in the company's president, Samuel Fuller. She leased space in the offices of the Fuller Products Company, and for 35 years a $100 weekly check from Fuller served as the bedrock of her own company's income.

Fuller was not Washington's only client; the black-owned Seaway National Bank was another mainstay. Most white companies refused to hire blacks to provide financial services, but Washington, atypically, had white clients, many of them Jewish. Some of her larger black customers were pressured by banks to move their business to white-owned accounting firms, but her firm nevertheless continued to grow. Employment with Washington became a point of entry to the profession for young black accountants, and by the 1960s Chicago was said to have a higher concentration of black CPAs than any other city in the United States as a result.

Washington was generous but meticulous in training the next generation of accountants. "She was a stickler for details and for getting it right, and, for me anyhow, it was a wonderful place to get a start," accounting executive Frederick Ford, who joined Washington's firm in the late 1940s, recalled to Barbara Sherlock. "I learned how important it was to do as nearly to perfect work as you could." Chicago judge Willie M. Whiting worked for Washington while in college. "She was always very sweet, but it had to be correct," he recalled to Allison Enright of Insight on-line magazine. "I was hired to be a statistical typist, and a typist I was not. But never did she interfere except in a positive way. Eventually, I learned to type those reports." Ford told Enright that "None of the big CPA firms would hire blacks, so Ms. Washington offered to come and let me work. She really opened the way for a number of black CPAs."

Washington joined with one of her protégés to form the firm of Washington & Pittman in 1968. With the addition of a third partner, Lester McKeever, the firm became known as Washington, Pittman & McKeever, LLC, in 1976. McKeever, who had joined Washington's staff as a part-time tax preparer, later became chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. "She was the pipeline," he told CNN. Washington, Pittman & McKeever remains a major force in the financial industry, with a roster of clients that includes the city of Chicago, Cook County, Chicago State and Western Illinois universities, the Chicago Public Library, Commonwealth Edison, and the telephone book printer R.R. Donnelly. Another client, early in his career, was boxer Muhammad Ali.

Washington was an important figure in Chicago's African-American business community, and her annual holiday parties were an essential stop for competitors and clients as well as her own employees. She retired in 1985, at the age of 79, and on July 2, 2005, at 99, she died in a suburban Chicago nursing home. Accounting historian Theresa Hammond told Insight that Washington "was not simply wealthy, successful, and highly regarded in the community. She set an example by creating opportunities for others and by generously supporting their careers, even after they had left her firm…. Her devotion to others' development … is a major reason that she is so well remembered today."

At a Glance …

orn on April 21,1906, in Vicksburg, MS; died on July 2, 2005, in suburban Chicago, IL; married Seymour Washington, 1927 (divorced 1935); married Donald Melvin Wylie, a taxicab mechanic; children: Barbara (from first marriage); Donald Jr., Donald II, Melanie, Ardelia (from second marriage). Education: Northwestern University, School of Business, BS, 1941.

Career: Mary T. Washington and Co.. accounting firm, founder, 1939; CPA, 1943; Washington & Pittman, founding partner, 1968; firm named changed to Washington, Pittman & McKeever, LLC, 1976; retired, 1985.

Sources

Books

Hammond, Theresa, African American Certified Public Accountants since 1921, University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Periodicals

Chicago Sun-Times, July 13, 2005, p. 84.

Chicago Tribune, July 14, 2005, p. 12.

New York Times, July 25, 2005, p. B7.

On-line

Enright, Allison, "Remembering Ms. Washington," Insight Magazine, www.insight-mag.com./insight/05/11-12/col-1-pt-1-InMemoriam.asp (April 7, 2006).

"First Lady of Black CPAs," CNN Money, http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fsb/fsb_archive/2005/09/01/8277768/index.htm (April 7, 2006).

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