From 1939 through its closure in 2013, Detroit’s Lewis College of Business operated as the only historically Black college and university (HBCU) in Michigan and one of only a handful of HBCUs to be established by a Black woman. (The college, first established by Violet Temple Lewis in 1928, was initially based in Indianapolis before relocating to Detroit where it received HBCU designation in 1987.)
Now, thanks to a celebrated sneaker designer and educator based roughly 2,000 miles away in Portland, Oregon, the old Lewis College of Business will be reborn as the nation’s first-ever reinstated HBCU and the first HBCU wholly dedicated to design. Given that the school, which will be rechristened as the Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design (PLC) when reopened next March, is the brainchild of former Nike design director Dr. D’Wayne Edwards, it will reportedly place a primary emphasis on fashion and footwear design although the PLC website notes that its programs will encompass “design, sustainability, business, STEM, and more.” Edwards is one of six designers of the Air Jordan and beyond his celebrated career at Nike has designed sneakers for L.A. Gear, New Balance, and his own brand for Sketchers. In 2010, he founded Portland’s Pensole Design Academy, the first footwear design school in the United States.
“After relocating to Detroit in 1939, it became a critical source of economic impact for the city’s Black community,” said Edwards of the Lewis College of Business, which he now serves as controlling stockholder of. “GM, Ford, and Michigan Bell hired their first Black office employees from the school. Eighty-two years later, and 14 years since it lost its accreditation as HBCU, I am honored to be resurrecting Violet T. Lewis’s legacy in Detroit.”
A key partner in the design-focused revival of the Lewis College of Business and its transformation into PLC is Detroit’s College of Creative Studies (CCS). As detailed by Pensole, PLC will be physically located at CCS’s A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education, which is home to multiple CCS departments as well as Design Core Detroit, the nonprofit organizer of Detroit Month of Design and steward of Motor City’s singular-for-the-U.S. UNESCO City of Design designation.
This space-sharing arrangement with CCS, however, is viewed only as a temporary one as PLC will ultimately develop its own permanent home in Detroit outside of the Taubman Center. Repopulating the old Lewis College of Business site on Meyers Road in northwest Detroit isn’t an option as it is being redeveloped into low-income senior housing, as reported by the Detroit Metro Times.
As further detailed by Pensole, PLC will “operate in partnership with and under the auspices of” CCS up until its official opening and reinstatement as an HBCU. During this lead-up period, CCS is working closely with Edwards to secure the legal and legislative approval required to establish the school, including designation as an accredited education program. Per Pensole, an agreement is being drafted that establishes a joint venture between CCS and PLC enabling the latter to offer accredited educational programs.
“CCS’s partnership with Pensole Design Academy is driven by our strong commitment to develop diverse creative talent and long-standing commitment to the City of Detroit,” said CCS president Don Tuski in a statement. “Together, CCS and Pensole will create a new resource to support the aspirations of Detroiters. The fact that Pensole chose CCS, Detroit and the Lewis College of Business is a testament to CCS’s robust alumni network of minority footwear designers, Detroit’s design legacy, and the impact of this historical HBCU on Detroit.”
Similar to its sibling school in Portland, PLC plans to offer free tuition to students.
Founding supporters of PLC are Target through the retailer’s $100 million Racial Equity Action and Change Strategy, along with Dan and Jennifer Gilbert via the Gilbert Family Foundation’s larger $500 million commitment to spurring economic investment in the couples’ hometown. The Gilberts are also supporters of contemporary art gallery Library Street Collective’s just-announced arts and cultural campus in the city’s East Village neighborhood, and in April, the couple bestowed the Cranbrook Academy of Art with a $30 million gift—the largest single donation to the stories 88-year-old institution and the largest gift ever given to a graduate arts program in the United States.
“We are proud to contribute to the Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design and know that this historic institution will once again cultivate a diverse talent pipeline and further cement Detroit’s legacy of innovation,” said Jennifer Gilbert, who in addition to her philanthropic activities, is an interior designer and entrepreneur who serves as founder and creative director of Detroit-based commercial design studio POPHOUSE.
The metamorphosis of the Lewis College of Business into PLC also has won the enthusiastic support of Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who noted that as “a predominantly Black city, Detroit should have an operating Historically Black College.” Detroit has the largest percentage of African American residents of any major city, and countless Black students have left their hometown to attend out-of-state HBCUs. Currently there are 107 U.S. Department of Education-recognized HBCUs (56 private and 51 public) across the U.S. including three that are currently closed. The majority are located in the South, with the heaviest concentrations in Alabama, Georgia, and North Carolina. The Biden administration initially pledged $45 billion in funding for HBCUs as part of its Build Back Better Plan although the final amount dedicated to Black colleges could be significantly less when the administration’s social spending plan when is ultimately passed.
“Not having one [an HBCU] has been a hole in our educational landscape for too long,” Duggan added. “To have the first HBCU anywhere to reopen happen in Detroit would be a tremendous demonstration of how our city is coming back as a city of opportunity for people of color.”
The project also has the support of the family of Violet T. Lewis. Her namesake and granddaughter, Dr. Violet E. Ponders, told local media outlet ClickOnDetroit that PLC students will benefit from “an education that is meaningful and that definitely results in employment. That’s what my grandmother was all about,” she said.
If all goes as planned, PLC is slated to open, as mentioned, next March, specifically on March 13 in observance of 313 Day. Enrollment is expected to kick off in December.