NewsBlack History Month

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

Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design re-opens in May
HBCU detroit
Posted at 5:00 AM, Feb 01, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-01 07:11:21-05

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.

“There’s no website that you can go to right now and research Black designers,” said Pensole Lewis’ president, Dr. D’Wayne Edwards. That’s something he’s confident Pensole Lewis can change, at least for the City of Detroit.

Lewis College of Business, first day of class in Detroit.

It’s already something he's worked to improve on the west coast, where he opened Pensole Footwear Design Academy after his success as a shoe designer.

Edwards wants to fill what he sees as a gap in Detroit’s creative industry; Black talent. He wants to see more of it represented, and more opportunity for young Black creatives.

To fully understand Edwards’ vision for the school’s second act, first, we have to understand the vision of its original founder, Violet T. Lewis.

In the midst of the Great Depression, she founded a college designed for Black women seeking secretary skills. Some of its first graduates landed jobs at companies like Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, and Michigan Bell. Companies where Black people were not then employed.

“Her vision was a reality,” said Violet Ponders, the granddaughter of Violet T. Lewis.

“The first Blacks you find in most of the major corporations in this area came from Lewis College of Business, or Lewis Business College at that point,” she said.

Violet T. Lewis

The latter was founded first in Indianapolis in 1928. With a $50 loan, a determined young Lewis bought several used typewriters, and started the Lewis Business College, at one point even running it out of her home.

The Wilberforce University graduate had previously taken a job as a secretary to the president at Selma University in Alabama, which allowed Lewis a look at the inner workings of running a college.

“She was looking for a way to employ African Americans. That was always her goal. Beyond employment, she was looking for her students to develop their own businesses,” Violet Ponders told Action News.

We sat down with Violet and her sister, Stefeyne Ponders, to talk about their grandmother’s legacy.

“Her formula for success was that you employ yourself and at least one other person,” Violet told Action News.

She remembered her grandmother having two very distinct sides; there was 'Mama TV' as they affectionately called her, and then there was Violet T. Lewis the serious businesswoman, who they knew didn’t repeat her instructions.

Lewis passed away in the late 60s after a battle with cancer.

They also remember their grandmother throwing the best parties, ones attended by both attorneys and janitors.

Everyone in Lewis’ circle celebrated with her, they said. And she was determined to celebrate their successes too.

Just before 1940, Lewis opened a Detroit branch of the school, and it’s the Motor City where the Lewis College of Business really took off. Over the years thousands of men and women graduated from the school, going on to successful careers in business. Many of them stayed in touch with Lewis.

Faculty and alumni became like family, said the younger Violet, who is named for her grandmother. Both she and Stefeyne followed in their grandmother's footsteps, becoming educators themselves.

“You just didn’t learn how to type and do shorthand. She taught you etiquette," Violet said. "She taught you how to answer the phone. I think both Stefeyne and I both learned to answer the phone in business-type format when we were children."

Violet Lewis was determined to give her students a well-rounded education, which often included business travel to Lansing and D.C. She also co-founded the Gamma Phi Delta Sorority, offering further chances to network and give back through philanthropy, something very important to her.

Gamma Phi Delta members. Lewis co-founded the sorority.

Keeping Violet’s vision in focus is critical for Dr. Edwards, who last fall announced that with the support of the Gilbert Family Foundation and Target as a corporate partner, he’d be re-opening the school, which closed in 2013.

“Marring her history with our small brief history, and then solving a massive need for corporations as it pertains to product design,” Edwards said.

“His vision is very similar to our grandmother’s. And that’s what sold Violet, myself, and Shirley my sister,” Stefeyne said. “He believes in excellence.”

Violet T. Lewis. Courtesy of Violet Ponders, her granddaughter.

Product and industrial design will be the focus of the new Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design.

Come May, the school will share space with the College of Creative Studies before it’s own facility in Detroit is finished.

“I have several students of mine that have left Michigan and moved to Oregon because that’s where they were able to have opportunity,” Edwards said. It’s something he hopes will change, now that students seeking an HBCU experience have an option closer to home.

He also see this benefiting Michigan corporations, by keeping creative talent here.

Lewis started the Lewis Business College with a $50 loan to purchases used typewriters

Once accepted, Pensole Lewis' first group of students will participate in a free five-week master class with Carharrt. It’s designers helped create the curriculum, something Edwards feels really sets this model apart.

“It’s like you have a real job for five weeks, but you’re being taught the way you would actually work at the corporations we’re partnering with,” he said.

The school has lined up similar programs with several other major companies including:

  • Procter and Gamble
  • Wolverine Worldwide
  • Versace
  • Nike
  • New Balance
  • Allbirds
  • Versace
  • Jimmy Choo
  • Michael Kors
  • Vans
  • Timberland
  • The North Face

“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 and they have a better chance of making intelligent decisions based on who to bring them in as; as interns or as full time hires," Edwards said, noting that students will have an internship opportunity after the master class.

A traditional full 15-week semester will start in the fall, Edwards said, but enrollment for the introductory 5-week course opens Feb. 8.

To ensure that Lewis’ legacy is never far from thought, she’ll even be reflected in the school's aesthetic. It’s colors are now shades of Violet.

“She had this gift of making people think they could do the impossible, which for her was not impossible, it was possible,” Violet Ponders said.