Reviving Lewis College of Business, Detroit’...

Reviving Lewis College of Business, Detroit’s shuttered historically Black college

Shoe designer D’Wayne Edwards aims to reopen and recertify the college, founded by Violet T. Lewis in 1928.

D’Wayne Edwards, via Pensole

Despite being a majority Black city, Detroit currently lacks a historically Black college or university. That is set to change next year — shoe designer D’Wayne Edwards announced plans this week to reopen Lewis College of Business as the state’s only HBCU.

The school is supported with funding from Dan Gilbert’s Gilbert Family Foundation and Target Corp. and will initially operate in partnership with the College for Creative Studies at their A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education building until a permanent site is identified. To fully open and operate as an education facility, Edwards is requesting approval from the Michigan Department of Education. The state legislature must then approve the school’s request to be recognized as an HBCU.

Lewis College of Business was originally founded during the Depression by Violet T. Lewis in Indianapolis as a means of preparing Blacks, particularly women, for jobs in offices, positions that were still heavily segregated, historian and journalist Ken Coleman told Detour Detroit. Lewis started the school with a $50 loan and moved the campus to Detroit in 1940. 

As the first African American to work as state Senate stenographer, Lewis wanted to train “the young people from laboring families,” as she told the Detroit Free Press in 1966, according to Coleman. The campus started as a nine-month stenographic school and went on to become an accredited junior college that served as a resource for students interested in working in the automotive industry. 

In 1987, the school was designated an HBCU, but the campus closed in 2013 after experiencing significant accreditation challenges, and as Blacks had more educational opportunities in metro Detroit, Coleman explained.

“It became a critical source of economic impact for the city’s Black community,” Edwards said in a statement. “GM, Ford, and Michigan Bell hired their first Black office employees from the school. 82 years later, and 14 years since it lost its accreditation as HBCU, I am honored to be resurrecting Violet T. Lewis’ legacy in Detroit.”

Edwards climbed his way to the upper echelons of the sneaker world as a Nike and Air Jordan designer. Edwards, who previously founded the PENSOLE Design Academy in Portland, Oregon, says the Detroit campus will be reimagined as the PENSOLE Lewis College of Business and Design and will provide certificate training with a particular focus in design.

When it opens in March 2022, the campus will appear to have come full-circle. Similar to Lewis, Edwards says he wants to create a space that will provide opportunities for Black students, this time in design. As a youth growing up in Inglewood, Calif., he wanted to be a footwear designer but said that there wasn’t a program in his hometown to nurture that dream. He got his start in the business with LA Gear before moving on to Nike in Portland. In 2010, that’s where he founded his first PENSOLE campus.