NewsBlack History Month

Former Lewis College graduates reflect ahead of school's re-opening

Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design re-opens in May
Posted at 5:37 AM, Feb 08, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-08 06:53:19-05

DETROIT (WXYZ) — Each week this month on 7 Action News, we’re taking an inside look at the impact of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs.

HBCUs are higher education institutions in the U.S. largely founded before the Civil Rights Act. They were designed to offer opportunities to Black students where they didn’t exist in segregated white colleges.

Today, HBCUs are some of the most celebrated and respected schools in the country.

This May, Michigan’s first and only HBCU, Lewis College of Business, will re-open as Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design. The industrial design-focused school will offer unique masterclasses, internships, and job training to 300 students in its first semester.

RELATED | Re-opening Michigan's only HBCU: What Pensole Lewis means for Detroit

Nan Gaddis and Pearline Teamer both graduated from Lewis College of Business, formerly Lewis Business College.

Gaddis graduated in 1959, and Teamer in 1947. They both describe the school's founder, Violet T. Lewis, as a mother figure and mentor.

“During that time, you didn’t hear anything about Black engineers too much," Teamer, who turns 96 in March, told 7 Action News.

Teamer recalls Lewis being more than an educator. She lived above the school and usually stayed in contact with students long after graduation.

She wanted to see them succeed, Teamer said. And many students did, going on to get higher degrees like Masters and Doctorates.

"This was her vision enlarged," Teamer said of the school's re-opening.

Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design will re-open in May in Detroit and will focus on industrial design.

“I wanted to be a coach. For men’s basketball. That’s what I wanted to be," Gaddis told Action News. She chuckled as she looked down as her Lewis Business College course catalog from the 50s.

"I never thought of being a secretary. But I fell into that category.” 

Both Teamer and Gaddis were born in the south. Gaddis didn't want to return to Louisiana, and a babysitting job for her sister brought her to Detroit.

She saw Lewis Business College as a way to stay in the city and get a successful job.

Nan Gaddis in the late 50s, early 60s working as a secretary. Gaddis graduated from Lewis Business College in 1959

“I majored in secretarial science, and my minor was accounting and bookkeeping," Gaddis said.

She graduated in 1959 with a certificate. She went on to work as a secretary for St. Paul AME Zion Church on Dexter in Detroit, where she worked for nearly five decades. She saw the shift from typewriters to laptops, correction fluid to the delete button.

"The typewriters were an asset to me because I’m left handed, and you threw the carriage with your left hand," she recalled.

Decades after she left the school her son would also walk the halls there, as a teacher.

"It was very emotional to be able to go there where she was a student and be a teacher there. And she taught me, always giving back," Burke Gaddis told Action News.

As an HBCU graduate from out-of-state, Burke returning to Lewis as an educator was his way of giving back.

"Different building but it’s the same family," he said.

"The fact that it was an HBCU meant a lot to us," Deolis Allen Jr. told Action News. Allen was Lewis College of Business's last academic dean.

"Part of what we did at Lewis College was to try and fill that role of mentoring students. Doing more than just teach class," he said.

Allen was a non-traditional student, having received his first degree in his 30s from University of Michigan. Neither one of his parents attended college and after high school he joined the Air Force.

Having that experience as a non-traditional student gave him insight into the many non-traditional students Lewis served over the years.

Gaddis herself was one of them; she took night classes because she worked during the day to earn tuition money.

The new Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design will offer educational opportunities for all students but is designed with non-traditional students in mind, said president Dr. D'Wayne Edwards.

“We create a curriculum based on, this is what it would take for you to get a job at this company. This is how you would work. As well as the company gets a chance to see these students over the course of five weeks," said Dr. Edwards.

Pensole Lewis will fuse industry knowledge with classroom instruction.

Enrollment for its first five-week course with Carhartt opens Feb. 8 and classes kick off this spring.

Upon completion of the course, students will have internship opportunities.

"We’ve had several people literally cry. Like people literally cried when they found out what we were doing because that were just so tired of all the creativity leaving the city because they couldn’t find an outlet within the city. And so we hope to be that outlet," Edwards said.

He thinks having an HBCU in Detroit is important. Just before Christmas Gov. Whitmer signed into law two bills, HB 5447 and HB 5448. They formally facilitated the re-opening of Lewis College of Business as Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design, making the school the state's only HBCU.

The modes of learning have changed, but the goal of going beyond a diploma is right of Lewis' playbook.

It's something Teamer hopes tomorrow's students understand

“This is part of her legacy," she said.

Teamer was also a member of the Gamma Phi Delta Sorority which Lewis co-founded. To this day the organization offers networking and philanthropy opportunities for members around the country.

Pearline Teamer sits in her home in Detroit. She graduated from Lewis Business College in 1947.

Teamer remembers when the group had to change its name in its early days.

"There was a white fraternity which had this name, Phi Gamma Delta," she said as she pointed to the sorority's first membership certificate.

"So they paid us money because we had our sorority pins and everything," Teamer said. "So they asked us if we would change our name."

And so Gamma Phi Delta was re-born. You can read more about the organization's fight for its name here.

According to the sorority's website, the white fraternity "had not applied and received a copyright for the use of Phi Gamma Delta. However, Phi Gamma Sorority had filed and received a copyright for the use of the name of Phi Gamma Delta."

But because the fraternity was comprised of wealthy white men, the executive board advised it would be a long and costly legal battle. The sorority settled with the fraternity for $10,000 and changed the name.