McKeever’s journey adds perspective to challenges of African American CPAs

Feb 15, 2021, 08:43 AM

After graduating from Gies College of Business with an accounting degree in 1955, only one of the Big 8 accounting firms would interview Lester McKeever Jr. and that’s because the placement office insisted. The former Chicago Federal Reserve chairman said he wasn’t too surprised because at the time none of them hired African Americans.

“But I was deeply disappointed. Arthur Andersen told me they would love to hire me, but their clients wouldn’t accept me. If each of them had hired just one African American, that would have addressed the problem,” said McKeever, partner of Mitchell Titus, a minority-controlled accounting firm that acquired Washington, Pittman & McKeever in 2018.

Instead, McKeever was eventually hired by Unity Mutual Life Insurance Co., which served the African American community. He also worked part-time during tax season for Mary T. Washington, the first African American woman to become a certified public accountant (CPA) in the US.

“Everyone needs mentors, and early in my professional career she was mine. She gave so many of us the opportunity to get the one year of experience needed to qualify to get a CPA license,” said McKeever, who joined Washington & Pittman full-time after he returned from two years in the Army in 1959. In 1971 he earned his law degree from Chicago-Kent College of Law. He was named a partner of the accounting firm in 1976.

McKeever said the tide toward hiring minorities didn’t begin to turn at the top accounting firms until the 1980s. Even then, while more African Americans were hired, few were promoted, which affects the pipeline of candidates to this day. Today, less than 1% of all CPAs in the US are Black, according to the National Society of Black Certified Public Accountants.

There are bright spots, however. McKeever points to PwC’s Explore and Start programs as an outstanding way to introduce a diverse undergraduate pool to accountancy. In 2006, he established the Mary T. Washington Wylie Opportunity Fund at the Illinois CPA Society. But McKeever believes the profession also needs to start younger – in middle school and high school – to educate students about the field.

“I tell young people that accounting is a part of every entity in the world—not just small and big businesses, but government and non-profits, too. Understand that everyone is in business to make money and the more you understand the operations and systems that make that happen, the more you can contribute to their success and your own,” said McKeever.

McKeever started his path to accountancy at the University of Illinois upon graduation from Wendell Phillips Academy in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. Allen and Frances Beasley gave him a scholarship to attend college and were actively involved in mentoring him.

“I started at the Navy Pier campus in 1951, which was cold and hard, but had a reputation as a good school. They called it Harvard on the Rocks,” McKeever said.

There, Accounting 101 Professor Helen Green saw his promise and encouraged him to transfer to Urbana-Champaign in 1953 to complete his degree.

“It was the first time I left Chicago. When they told me I’d need to take a train, I thought they meant the L tracks. So that was my first big surprise,” McKeever said.  

McKeever studied under a young professor named Art Wyatt who became a renowned instructor at the university. There was only one other African American student in the College majoring in accountancy.  McKeever said he joined the Kappa Alpha Phi fraternity to connect with other black students. It became a safe place where they could share their experiences and discuss how to handle them.

“We worked together with the white kids on campus to bring visibility to racism at campus businesses such as restaurants and barbershops,” said McKeever. “For example, a Black student would ask for a haircut and they’d refuse. Then a white student would come in right afterward and they’d say 'yes' and ignore the Black student.”

The campus radio station got involved, but ultimately the businesses prevailed: They gave a few Black students horrible haircuts so they wouldn’t come back and posted a sign that said, “We do not cut wooly, kinky, or nappy hair regardless of race, color or creed.'”

McKeever said he believes progress was made toward racial equality while he was there, and promoting the needs of African American students is one of the reasons why he’s remained involved with the university and Gies College of Business.

“Lester’s long-standing passion for and commitment to Gies is admirable, most especially when you think of what it must have been like for him as a Black student at U of I in the 1950s,” said Cedric D. Thurman, a fellow member of the Dean’s Business Council (DBC) and Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago, SVP, Chief Diversity Officer, Group Head Community Investment and Diversity and Inclusion. “Lester has consistently given his time, talents, and resources to the College. When I met Lester as a member of the Young Alumni for the College of Commerce, he asked me to stay involved as my perspective was important for others and the College to hear. Over 30 years later, I’m still involved because Lester asked me to be.”

McKeever is a past president and current member of the DBC and past president of the Gies Business Alumni Association. He has been treasurer of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees since 1994 and was a member of the University Alumni Association’s Board of Directors.

“I think what makes Lester such a good leader is he is like a wise sage. When you meet him you immediately realize he has a wealth of knowledge and experiences you want to learn from,” added Thurman. “Lester is like a father figure, mentor, coach, and friend all rolled into one. He freely offers advice and guidance; tells you what you need to hear, not always what you want to hear, and always wants to know how you are doing, and you can tell it is a sincere question. Finally, Lester will always make time for everyone.”  

McKeever also is a passionate civic leader. He served on the finance committee under Chicago mayors Harold Washington and Richard M. Daley. He has been chairman of United Way of Metropolitan Chicago and the Chicago Urban League as well as co-chair of Chicago United. He has also been active with the Cosmopolitan Chamber of Commerce, the Commercial Club of Chicago, the Metropolitan Planning Council, the Neighborhood Institute Development Corp. and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association. He has also played leadership roles in many accounting and law-related associations, including the AICPA, the Illinois CPA Society, the CPA Endowment Fund of Illinois, American Association of Attorney-CPAs (AAA-CPA), and the National Society of Black CPAs.

“I remain cautiously hopeful about the #BlackLivesMatter movement but acknowledge that the last election – with 74 million people voting to keep Trump in office – suggests we still have difficult times ahead as we work toward equality. This does not mean that I think all 74 million held racist views, but evidently many more than I imagined did,” McKeever said. “We need to use the power of the Gies alumni network and the African American business community to show black students the career possibilities that come with an understanding of the core principles of accounting.”