UI Alumnus Lester McKeever makes CPA history

Lester+McKeever+became+the+60th+Black+CPA+in+the+United+States%C2%A0in+1960.+McKeever+studied+accounting+and+joined+the+Kappa+Alpha+Psi+fraternity+during+his+time+at+the+University.+

Photo courtesy of Gies College of Business

Lester McKeever became the 60th Black CPA in the United States in 1960. McKeever studied accounting and joined the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity during his time at the University.

By Matt Troher, Assistant Features Editor

Lester McKeever has taken on many roles during his long, storied career. Before he became one of the first 100 Black Certified Public Accountants in the country, worked as the chairman of the Chicago Federal Reserve, took on a leadership position with the National Society of Black CPAs and became a partner at his own accounting firm, McKeever’s role as a University student prepared him for the road ahead.

McKeever began his education at The University of Illinois’ Navy Pier campus — a short-lived satellite campus  in 1950. In 1953, McKeever was accepted to transfer to the Urbana-Champaign campus’s college of Business to study accounting.

The trip downstate was McKeever’s first time leaving the city.

“When they told me to catch the train, I thought they were talking about the L car,” McKeever said, referring to Chicago’s public transportation.

Once in Champaign-Urbana, McKeever joined the Kappa Alpha Phi fraternity, a historically Black fraternity. At the time, the area was segregated.

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    McKeever said that the inability of Black students to get haircuts was a publicized struggle.

    “We would go with a group of white students, and the Black student would enter the barbershop first, followed by a white person, and they would not take the Black person and only take the white person,” McKeever said. “Since there was such a clamor on campus, they’d start letting Black students sit in the chair but (purposely) mess up their haircut. I hate to repeat this, but they even posted signs that said ‘we do not cut willy, kinky or nappy hair regardless of race, color, or creed.’”

    Despite attending a predominantly white institution during a time of segregation, McKeever found community within his fraternity and accounting classes. He excelled academically and soon prepared himself to enter the field. However, when McKeever graduated in 1955, only one of the eight major accounting firms at the time would interview him. 

    “At the one interview I got, they said that they would love to hire me but they couldn’t do so because their clients wouldn’t accept me,” McKeever said. “That left a bad taste in my mouth for quite a while, but my life without them has turned out to be quite nice.”

    After graduation, McKeever got his start in accounting as a part-time assistant during tax season for Mary T. Washington, the first Black woman to earn her Certified Public Accounting license. Washington served as a mentor for McKeever, helping him learn the ropes and get started in the field. 

    However, McKeever’s said his entry into the field was interrupted in 1957 when he was drafted into the United States Army. With help from Washington, McKeever petitioned for early release, but this was unsuccessful.

    Two years later, McKeever left the military and returned to accounting. He then took a full-time position at Washington’s firm.

    In 1960, McKeever passed his CPA exam and became the 60th Black CPA in the United States  39 years after John Cromwell Jr. became the first Black CPA.

    In 1971, McKeever earned a law degree from the Chicago-Kent School of Law. Since he had a law degree and a CPA license, McKeever was named a partner at Washington’s firm in 1976. The firm was eventually renamed Washington, Pittman & McKeever.

    McKeever’s work and influence extended far beyond the firm. Throughout his career, McKeever served in many roles in accounting, financial and civic institutions.

    In 1991, McKeever was appointed chairman of the Chicago Federal Reserve. He served until 2001.

    “Serving in that role was quite the honor,” McKeever said. “It’s one of the distinctive blessings of my life, looking back and having sat around the table with Alan Greenspan and discussing policy.”

    In addition to serving as the Chicago Federal Reserve chairman, McKeever has also served in leadership positions at the National Society of Black CPAs, the Chicago Urban League, the Commercial Club of Chicago and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association. Currently, McKeever is the treasurer of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees.

    Accounting remains an overwhelmingly undiverse field. A 2019 report by the Association of International Certified Public Accountants found that only 2% of American CPAs are Black, and only 1% of partners at CPA firms are Black.

    Despite the numbers, McKeever remains optimistic for a more diverse future, but he is disappointed by the field’s current trajectory.

    “It’s disappointing, let’s put it that way,” McKeever said. “I have had the opportunity to work with the big four firms, and they mean well — at least it appears that they mean well — but it just doesn’t evidence itself. There are no real significant numbers of (Black) managers or partners in these firms. I’m encouraged by what’s going on around us, and I’m sure it’s going to make a difference, but at the moment I’m still disappointed at where we’re at in terms of inclusion.”

     

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