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Saturday, March 2, 2024

Pillars of NC: Walter Davenport overcame racism as a pioneering CPA

Even in high school, Raleigh native Walter Conaway Davenport knew he wanted to be a certified public accountant — it says so under his senior photograph in J.W. Ligon High School’s class of 1966 yearbook. At the time he graduated, he’d only heard of one Black accountant, Nathan Garrett, a CPA in Durham.

Davenport attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, graduating in 1970 with a degree in business administration. He then joined Arthur Andersen & Co., one of five Black staffers among more than 300 employees in the Atlanta office.

In 1974, he was hired by Garrett’s firm as a senior accountant. After passing the CPA exam a year later, he became a partner. In 1988, the duo formed Garrett & Davenport, the largest minority-owned CPA firm in North Carolina with six CPAs and 20 staffers in Durham and Raleigh. In 1998, the firm merged with Cherry Bekaert, a large regional firm with roots in North Carolina and Virginia. Davenport led the firm’s nonprofit sector for a decade before retiring in 2008.

Davenport, 74, has been active in many industry, civic and business groups, including serving 10 years on the UNC System Board of Governors. He’s on four boards, including Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina and Wake Tech Community College, while serving as a treasurer for N.C. Sen. Dan Blue’s campaign committee.

In 2018, he suffered a septic embolism and was put into a medically induced coma. He spent six months at WakeMed, a rehabilitation center and in assisted living before returning to his Raleigh home. 

He spends time at his timeshare at Atlantic Beach and with his two sons and two granddaughters.

 

Comments are edited for length and clarity.

I was part of the honor guard when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. laid in state at the Sisters Chapel on Spelman College’s campus. [Like Davenport], Dr. King was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, so the Alphas stood over his casket for a three- to four-day period while people came in to view him.

Everyone at Arthur Andersen did not accept “us.” They hadn’t bought into the idea of Black people being in the firm. I had a partner tell me I was off an engagement because the client did not want a Black person. There are more stories similar to that. In spite of that, I became a CPA after enduring that kind of treatment.

I met Nathan (Garrett) in 1974 when I was being recruited by a company in the Northeast to be their chief financial officer. His firm was the auditor for the company. I didn’t really like my experience in the Northeast and subsequently, I joined Nathan’s firm.

Nathan is 18 years older than me. He was a mentor to me. Ultimately, we became golfing partners, business partners, and good friends. I followed in Nathan’s footsteps. During his career, Nathan was on the North Carolina State Board of Certified Public Accountant Examiners and he served as secretary. Almost 20 years later, I was on that board as president, vice president and secretary. 

I became involved with nonprofits on the accounting side when I was with my accounting firm. Nonprofits were the only ones we could provide services to. The for-profit industries didn’t want to use a minority CPA firm. 

Looking back at it now, you accept what happened. We succeeded in spite of. I don’t know what drove them (boards and management of other companies) to make certain decisions. 

We cared about the nonprofits. We cared about the mission. We were serious about trying to help nonprofit organizations stay on a sure footing. But I always told my staff, “We provide a lot of services to nonprofit organizations, but don’t let a nonprofit organization make us a nonprofit organization.”

When Nathan and I were together, we were an integrated firm. We didn’t care about the color of their skin. We looked at the potential they had or could have, hired them and developed them.

My inauguration speech (in 2014 for the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy) was titled, “Embrace the future, even when you can’t see it.” We are an aging population and as CPAs retire, young folks have got to come behind us. 

NASBA, the accounting profession and the state board needed to be more diverse in their representation. They needed to start looking like the population. 

Dan (Blue) and I are fraternity brothers. I met Dan in 1984, and he became a tax client of mine. He asked me to be his campaign treasurer. I’ve always thought every candidate needs to have a qualified treasurer — somebody who knows what they’re doing and knows the rules — to keep up with the money. 

[When I got sick in 2018] they told my family to make peace with me because I wasn’t going to make it. 

When I got out of WakeMed, I went to a rehab center. I had to learn to speak clearly again. I had to learn how to walk. I could not move. One day, I went to therapy and I couldn’t get out of the chair because I had lost all feeling. I remember the first time I took steps by myself; I cried like a baby. I bounced back. 

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