This story was written by Charles McNair.
Margaret Vaughn (BBA ’70) didn’t realize she was making history.
“I did not set a goal to become the first Black woman to graduate from the Terry College of Business,” she says. “I knew at the time that two Black males had preceded me. But even at graduation, I did not attach any great significance to that moment.”
Vaughn may have been distracted by job offers.
It was 1970, and businesses and the federal government were just waking up to the potential of a diversified professional workforce. Vaughn heard from NASA, the Big 8 accounting firms, the U.S. Department of Labor and others.
“I attribute that attention,” she says modestly, “to the fact that a University of Georgia business degree was highly respected by employers.”
But, hello Houston, there was a problem. The potential employers all wanted Vaughn to relocate–to Texas, New York or New Jersey.
“The U.S. Department of Treasury won out,” Vaughn says, “because the Internal Revenue Service did not require me to leave Georgia.”
In 1970, she started a distinguished career with the IRS, retiring in 2004 after serving in multiple roles with increasing responsibility.
In an unexpected way, Vaughn says, her UGA classroom experience prepared her perfectly for the 1970s business world.
“Initially, my work environment was a near mirror image of my environment at UGA,” Vaughn says. “Predominately male and white.”
“I was the only African American and one of only two females in my first tax training class. I was one of only two or three African Americans and the only African American female employed as an IRS field agent in Georgia. I remember being one of only two African Americans in the swearing-in ceremony when I became a certified public accountant.”
“So not only did my UGA experience provide me the technical knowledge to become an expert in my field,” she says, “it also fully prepared me for the environment where I would have to work.”
Roads not taken
Vaughn never plotted to enter the business world.
As a student at Pearl High School in Madison, Georgia, she loved to write. She created the school’s first yearbook and wrote the school’s alma mater. She had her heart set on making a living by the paragraph and page.
That changed in her senior year. The principal of her high school called Vaughn into the office with news.
“You’re going to be the senior class valedictorian,” the principal said. “And you’re going to the University of Georgia. I’ve already talked with your father about it, and he agrees.”
Goodbye Spelman. Goodbye historically Black universities and colleges.
Vaughn, in retrospect, sees two powerful reasons behind that decision made for her.
First, her principal wanted to show that a student from her school could excel at UGA. Second, Vaughn’s dad had come home from the military and had been denied an opportunity to attend UGA. His daughter’s admission would mark an achievement for the Vaughn family. (Margaret would be the first in her immediate family to go to college.)
Dad also had a very practical concern. He felt sure that a business degree could ensure that his brilliant daughter would find a job with steady paychecks and financial security instead of rejection slips and unsold manuscripts.
Vaughn speaks thoughtfully and philosophically about the challenges she faced as a young Black woman in the late ’60s at a newly-integrated Deep South university.
“I entered UGA feeling that a personal sacrifice had been made to enroll,” she says, “but the remaining unanswered question was whether the struggle for representation and inclusion would be worth the sacrifice.”
“Of course, I was also concerned about more immediate matters. What would I face in the classroom? Would I be marginalized? Would I face open hostility? Would I have help in my studies, if I needed it?”
Terry proved an education.
“It felt as though each class held a different UGA experience with different challenges,” she says.
“I specifically remember a speech class. I was the only Black student in a white, predominantly male class, and I was deeply concerned that it would be the worst experience of the quarter.”
“The icebreaker was that I could write. I shared a few of my discarded speech drafts. Contrary to my initial fears, it went exceedingly well. I had initially dreaded the class and my study group, but that was a time I experienced inclusion from fellow students.”
Helping others blaze trails
Solving challenges on her own, class by class, turned out to be an important part of Vaughn’s education.
“UGA showed me in many ways that I was strong and resilient,” she says. “The university taught me that if I want my life to matter, I must live it on my own terms, unselfishly, with responsibility for my own happiness.”
Vaughn often recalls how, in 1966, she felt alone and without support in classrooms. It’s why she is now passionate about giving special attention to small, often unsupported, businesses through her tax consulting practice, Margaret Davis Vaughn, CPA.
She also serves on the boards of organizations that provide guidance to promising young people.
“Being a trailblazer in 1970 meant there were no African American female role models, no mentors, for me at UGA,” Vaughn says. “There was no one to call to ask for directions.
“This is why I am determined to have an impact on the lives of as many students as I possibly can. Just as someone saw a possibility for me, I am certain there are CPAs waiting among the students within my reach.”