Accounting is a profession in which qualified people who really know their field can advance, regardless of race. But accounting is hard work; it takes discipline. Some people think they can make a lot of money as a CPA. That could be, but it takes a lot of time and strength and knowledge. Having a good mentor helps, too.
Throughout my career, I’ve been very fortunate to have had mentors who guided and inspired me. My first mentor was the bookkeeper at my high school in Oklahoma. I worked for her part time in the school office, and she got me interested in accounting. Thanks to her, I fell in love with balancing the books and knew I wanted to study accounting in college.
I graduated from high school in 1936. At that time, blacks were not allowed to enroll in Oklahoma’s two state universities, so I enrolled in the state’s only historically black college, Langston University. Langston did not have an accounting program, but it offered a degree in business administration. I took all of the accounting courses the college offered. The accounting professor became my second mentor.
After I graduated from Langston, I married and worked for two years. Then my husband and I moved to Wisconsin and studied at the University of Wisconsin, where I earned a master’s degree in accounting. With that degree, I became qualified to teach at the college level.
After graduation, my husband and I were both invited to teach at Clark College in Atlanta. While at Clark, I was again fortunate to find a mentor, who encouraged me to sit for the CPA exam. I did, and in 1951 I became a CPA.
One of my accounting professors from Wisconsin kept in touch with me while I lived in Atlanta. He pestered me to return to Wisconsin to work on a Ph.D. I finally gave in, and in 1955 I became the first African-American woman CPA to earn a Ph.D.
Once I had my degree, I returned to Atlanta. I continued to teach at Clark, but I also wanted to practice accounting, so I decided to open my own firm, a sole proprietorship. One of my clients was a woman banker at a predominantly black bank. Thanks to her referrals, my practice grew. I ran it for 10 years.
When my husband, William H. Hale, who was a sociologist, was elected president of Langston University, I decided to close my firm to join him in Oklahoma. That’s when I dedicated myself to accounting education. I’ve always been drawn to teaching because I felt educators could touch more people by helping to train accounting students. I guess that turned out to be true, if the career of one of my students at Utah State University (USU), where I spent 18 years teaching, is any measure. That student was Jim Quigley, who is CEO of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu.
I joined the faculty at USU in 1971. During my time there, I also served as head of the School of Accountancy for 13 years. I felt truly honored when the university named a chair after me. I retired from USU in 1990, but I couldn’t stay retired. I taught at Brigham Young University for two years, and was visiting professor at several other colleges. In 1998, I finally hung up my visor and put away my chalk.
I’ve seen a lot of changes in business and society over many years, especially in accepting African Americans. When I became a CPA in 1955, I was able to join the AICPA. I also was able to join the American Woman’s Society of CPAs (AWSCPA), and I became very active in both of these organizations. However, I was not allowed to join the Georgia Society or AWSCPA’s Georgia chapter. Barriers have come down, but accounting is still not highly diversified.
When I look back, I think I was lucky to have found such persevering and caring mentors. I worked hard, and over the years I have received several awards for my teaching and leadership. It felt good to get the awards; knowing I have helped make a difference, though, felt even better. I would advise all young people thinking about public accounting as a career—especially African Americans: Work hard. Accounting is an excellent field to be in. If you are serious about it, you can go far.
—As told to Linda Segall