When Americans celebrate black history month, we often remember great artists, singers, and musicians who created a brand new, uniquely American culture. However, let’s also remember those black Americans who paved the way for future black generations in the fields of law, medicine, business, and finance. Today, we remember Mary T. Washington, a woman who in spite of all obstacles became the country’s first black female certified public accountant.

Washington began her career way back in the 1920s, a decade that was a turning point in black American history. Black men who had sacrificed so much for their country returned from World War I only to be told to go back to the subservient life they had left behind. Instead of obediently complying, African Americans fought back by proudly embracing their heritage, forging their own culture, and fighting hard for equal rights.

The postwar years brought along the Harlem Renaissance, the birth of a new black American culture, but it was also a time when black men and women were first able to gain employment in white collar professions once only open to whites. During this time, Mary T. Washington began her career in finance as an assistant to the cashier and the vice president at Binga State Bank, a black-owned establishment in the city of Chicago.

The vice president at Binga State Bank was Arthur J. Wilson, who had the distinction of being the second black CPA in the United States. Wilson took Washington under his wing and encouraged her to pursue a career in accounting. Wilson not only faced prejudice because of her race, but also because of her sex. Women were not expected to go to college, and those who did went to women-only institutions where they pursued “suitable” careers like teaching and nursing. When Washington completed her education at Northwestern University’s School of Business in 1941, she was the only woman in her graduating class. In 1943, she passed the state of Illinois’ CPA exam and became the first black female CPA in the United States.

Mary T. Washington had a long and profitable career as a Chicago accountant. She operated her first business out of her basement, but over the years, it grew into a sizable firm. She gained prominent clients, serving many of the city’s large black businesses. Washington also had white clients, a rare occurrence for any black-owned business during that time. Even in modern northern cities like Chicago, segregation was the de facto status among residents and businesses.

In 1968, Washington partnered with a former protégé and began the firm of Washington & Pittman. In 1976, the firm took on another partner and became Washington, Pittman, and McKeever, LLC. The firm remains a widely regarded and influential institution in the city of Chicago today.

Mary T. Washington was savvy in business and generous in spirit. She paved the way for many black accountants over the years, hiring many aspiring black CPAs from across the country in order to give them the experience they needed to earn their accounting certificates. Washington demanded excellence from her mentees, inspiring them to become not only America’s first generations of black accountants, but the very best accountants in their field.

In Illinois today, the Mary T. Washington Wylie Internship Preparation program offers an all-expenses paid internship program for up to 25 African American and other underrepresented minority college students interested in accounting. Mary T. Washington lived a long life, passing away at the age of 99 in her beloved city of Chicago. She worked as an accountant until 1985. Her legacy lives on in the work she left behind and in the people who are working in accounting today because she gave them a chance when no one else would. Mary T. Washington was not only a successful businesswoman, but a leader who worked to make things better for future generations while building bridges between the white and black communities within her community.

As we remember Mary T. Washington, are there any community leaders from the past or present who have made a difference in your life or in the lives around you? Let’s remember to thank them for their incredible service not only this month, but all year long.