Breaking Barriers and Building Legacies: The Journey of George Johnson & Company from Detroit’s first Black-owned CPA firm to a Midwest powerhouse

Photo: Richard H. Austin, founder of first Black CPA firm in Michigan and the first African-American Certified Public Accountant (CPA) in Michigan and the 11th in the entire United States

The accounting profession in the United States is predominantly white, with this demographic representing 84 percent of all Certified Public Accountants (CPAs). In contrast, Black professionals constitute a mere two percent of the CPA population, as highlighted in a 2019 report by the Association of International Certified Public Accountants. As in most instances, the lack of representation is not taboo nor is it a new finding. The truth of the matter is that it’s far too common especially in fields that propels the future of Black people such as financial institutions.

In 1921, John W. Crowell, Jr. marked a significant milestone as the first Black Certified Public Accountant (CPA) in the United States, establishing his practice in Washington, D.C. Despite this breakthrough, the accounting profession has been marred by persistent barriers that disproportionately affect Black accountants. Research from the Journal of Accountancy indicates that before 1969, a mere fraction, less than 0.15%, of all American CPAs were Black.

The profession is challenged by deep-seated stereotypes, prejudiced assumptions, and exclusionary practices that curtail the advancement of Black accountants. Both explicit and implicit biases among influential figures in the accounting world perpetuate these disparities. Additionally, the traditional apprenticeship model, designed to ensure professional competency, inadvertently erected further hurdles for Black Americans due to its exclusive nature.

Detroit’s history of shattering conventional boundaries finds a notable chapter in the story of the 1941 certified public accountant firm Austin, Washington, and Davenport that is now known as George Johnson & Company (GJC) since the re-organization in 1971. Founded in 1941 by Richard H. Austin, a trailblazing Black man who not only became the first African-American Certified Public Accountant (CPA) in Michigan but also the 11th in the entire United States. In 1971, George G. Johnson, CPA, laid the foundation for what would become George Johnson & Company, establishing the firm as a sole proprietorship right in the heart of Detroit. As the new millennium dawned, the firm broadened its horizons, extending its services across the Midwest and catering to clients in Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio. With strategic locations in the thriving downtown areas of Detroit and Chicago, GJC has carved out a significant presence. Presently, it stands as one of the most prominent certified public accounting firms that originated in the Metropolitan Detroit area.

Established over eight decades ago, this firm emerged as Michigan’s first CPA entity owned and operated by African Americans, marking a significant deviation from the norm in a predominantly white profession. Its arrival on the scene wasn’t just a business launch; it was a bold step forward in the fight for racial equity and representation in the financial sector. Austin, whose career later ascended to the role of Michigan Secretary of State, laid the foundation for what would become a pivotal institution in supporting Detroit’s economic fabric, particularly during the transformative years of the 1940s and 1950s.

During this era, Detroit was undergoing significant changes, with neighborhoods like Black Bottom and Paradise Valley emerging as vibrant centers of thriving Black culture, entrepreneurship, and community. What is now known as GJC, played an instrumental role in this landscape, offering financial guidance and support to burgeoning businesses within these communities. The firm’s presence and services were not just about ledger books and balance sheets; they were a testament to empowerment and opportunity in a time when both were often out of reach for the Black community.

Historically, mentorship and apprenticeship opportunities were often out of reach for Black accountants, locked away or gatekept by professional networks that systematically excluded minorities. This legacy of exclusion has led to enduring systemic obstacles that persist to this day.

A 2018 Center for American Progress report highlights the wage gap within apprenticeships, noting that in 2017, Black apprentices earned significantly less than their white counterparts, with hourly wages of $14.35 compared to $26.14.

Today, GLC CEO & Managing Partner Anthony R. McCree can echo this sentiment as he now has taken the torch and continues to keep both Johnson’s and Austin’s vision at the forefront. McCree has over 24 years of public accounting and auditing experience.  He joined GJC in 2016 as Managing Partner. Prior to GJC, Anthony began his career almost thirty years ago in 1996. “A lot of people don’t know that Austin paved the way for a lot of other CPAs to enter the field for over 25 years before he became secretary of state and sold the firm,” shared McCree. “Throughout that time, he also made the culture of our firm really integrated in the community and helping small businesses, black businesses, and nonprofits handle their accounting and finance needs, and we continue to do that today.”

Photo: GLC CEO & Managing Partner Anthony R. McCree

Enhancing the presence of Black professionals within accounting is crucial for rectifying these systemic inequities and empowering individuals of color entering the field. Greater representation not only facilitates financial prosperity and social mobility for Black accountants but also enriches the profession as a whole.

“So, we’re really proud of our legacy and what we’ve been able to do throughout the decades because of Mr. Austin’s paving the way as a trailblazer,” McCree said.

Embracing diversity not only cultivates a more equitable society but also provides a competitive advantage. According to Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends, most professionals view diversity and inclusion as crucial to business success. In a bold move, Deloitte committed $75 million in 2021 towards increasing the number of Black and Latino/a accountants by 50% by 2025. Similarly, McKinsey & Company’s research underscores that diversity correlates with higher profitability, as diverse teams bring unique perspectives and innovative thinking to the table.

Here at home, as Detroit evolved, so did George Johnson and Company. From its early days of nurturing local businesses, the firm expanded its vision and capabilities, adapting to the shifting economic environment. The transition into the late 20th and early 21st centuries saw GJC not just keeping pace with change but often staying ahead of it. The firm’s commitment to excellence and its deep-rooted understanding of the complexities of financial management allowed it to guide businesses and organizations toward not just survival, but prosperity. Many of these entities have grown to become part of the prestigious Fortune 1000 list, a testament to George Johnson and Company’s impact.

“To be the third owner in this great firm holding a legacy for over 83 years and to handle what Mr. Austin and Mr. Johnson carried for so long, it’s an honor and privilege to fill their shoes today,” McCree said.

The 80th anniversary of GJC is more than a milestone; it reflects a journey marked by resilience, innovation, and a commitment to community upliftment. The firm’s longevity is a narrative of adapting to economic shifts, technological advancements, and the ever-changing needs of the businesses and communities it serves. This adaptability, coupled with a deep-seated dedication to the principles of excellence and empowerment, has ensured GJC’s position as a leader in the financial industry.

“I feel like it’s a weighted responsibility,” expressed McCree. “When I had the opportunity to come up on the shoulders of Mr. Johnson during his transition to retirement, I didn’t know a lot about the history of legacy. I was kind of on the fence about whether I was going to be where I currently am. But as I heard more about the firm’s history and legacy, I felt somewhat of an obligation to make sure that the firm continued to do what it’s been doing for decades.”

Looking ahead, the story of GJC is as much about where it’s headed as it is about where it’s been. This firm isn’t just resting on the laurels of its rich history; it’s actively shaping its future, staying true to the groundbreaking ethos laid down by its original founder, Mr. Richard H. Austin. GJC is all about pushing boundaries, seizing new opportunities, and staying committed to uplifting communities and nurturing entrepreneurial spirits. This ongoing journey of GJC isn’t just a narrative of business success; it’s a reflection of relentless determination, visionary leadership, and a deep-rooted commitment to not just thrive in the business world but to make a real difference in people’s lives and the broader economic fabric.

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