Breaking barriers: Michigan’s only Historically Black College set to reopen this spring

By: - January 16, 2022 5:29 am

D’Wayne Edwards of PENSOLE and Don Tuski, president of the College for Creative Studies (CCS) | Courtesy photo

Even before the Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design debuts in Detroit on May 2, it is shattering records. 

The school will become the country’s first Historically Black College or University (HBCU) to ever reopen — and education leaders said the institution is poised to make Detroit an epicenter of design and champion Black designers in a design field that remains overwhelmingly white. (About 73% of those in the design industry are white and 3% are Black, according to the American Institute of Graphic Arts, a professional association for design.)

Founded by Violet T. Lewis, a nationally renowned Black businesswoman and educator, the school was originally known as the Lewis College of Business and operated in Detroit from 1939 to 2013. After it closed because of accreditation challenges, there were numerous attempts to reopen the school that received its HBCU designation in 1987.

Dr. Deirdre Young, Chief Diversity Officer, CCS; CCS President Don Tuski; George Armstrong of Target Corporation; Dr. Violet Ponders, granddaughter of Dr. Violet T. Lewis, founder of Lewis College of Business; Dr. D’Wayne Edwards, founder/PENSOLE Design Academy; Jennifer Gilbert of the Gilbert Family Foundation; and Deputy Mayor Conrad Mallett of the City of Detroit, Oct. 12, 2021 | Courtesy photo

Now, it’s just a matter of months before Michigan’s first — and only — HBCU will welcome students to its campus at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit.

“I am tremendously excited about the reopening of Lewis College as Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design as an HBCU,” College for Creative Studies President Don Tuski said. “The impact will be great for Detroit and for many diverse students who will have another choice for design school.”

HBCUs were established in the 19th century to provide educational opportunities to people of African descent interested in obtaining undergraduate and graduate degrees but, because of systemic racism, not welcomed at existing public and private higher educational institutions. The majority of HBCUs originated between 1865 and 1900, with the greatest number starting in 1867 — two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. The majority, about 89%, of HBCUs are located in the southern United States. Currently, the closest ones to Michigan are in Illinois and Ohio.

The new higher education program at Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design is being crafted with D’Wayne Edwards, Founder of PENSOLE Design Academy in Portland, Ore. He is laying out plans for the school with his co-founding partners at the College for Creative Studies, the Gilbert Family Foundation and Target. The Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design will serve as the pipeline HBCU for career education and professional development in the design industry, a field in education that Edwards said is not accessible in existing HBCUs.

With more than 33 years of expertise as a trained footwear designer for several major brands, followed by a career in teaching and education, Edwards’ inspiration for taking on this initiative is to make design opportunities and career possibilities more accessible to people of color through education that combines design and business.

“As educators, we also have to do our part and provide learning opportunities that help redirect these young minds into opportunities that they feel they are a part of and want to be a part of,” Edwards said.

Over the past 12 years, PENSOLE Design Academy has played a major role in the sportswear industry to pull new, diverse talent in design, Edwards said. Upon learning of the Lewis Business College and its founder, Edwards researched and pursued the history of the college. He also connected with the real estate agent listing the location and the family of Lewis, the school’s founder, which led to the process of reopening the college. Pensole Lewis College will offer programs in design, sustainability, business, and STEM.

Ian Conyers at the Lewis College of Business historic marker in Detroit | Ken Coleman

Lewis founded the Lewis College of Business in Indiana in 1929. She moved the school, which was primarily for women, to Detroit in 1941. In 2018, then-Gov. Rick Snyder signed a bill sponsored by then-Sen. Ian Conyers (D-Detroit) renaming a portion of the John C. Lodge Freeway (M-10) in Detroit for Lewis.

Edwards admits that he had not previously heard of Lewis or the history of Lewis College, but he was drawn to her story and her entrepreneurial thinking. By blending design and business with the reinstatement of Pensole Lewis College, along with the relationships developed between the design industry and companies, Edwards said he is confident the institution will be sustainable and will increase racial diversity in both the participating companies and the design field.

Edwards added the feedback and support from the city of Detroit and the state have been positive.

“The state has embraced what we’re doing,” Edwards said.

At the end of December, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed House Bills 5447 and 5448, which reestablish the Lewis College of Business as the Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design.

“I am proud to play a part in helping reopen the Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design in Detroit,” Whitmer said in a press statement. “I am committed to expanding educational opportunities for Michiganders across our state to put Michigan first.”  

State Rep. Joe Tate (D-Detroit), who co-sponsored both bills, noted there has been bipartisan support for the legislation, and Sen. Marshall Bullock (D-Detroit), chair of the Michigan Legislative Black Caucus, called the college’s reopening a “tremendous opportunity for Detroit and the Black community on so many levels.”

I am tremendously excited about the reopening of Lewis College as Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design as an HBCU. The impact will be great for Detroit and for many diverse students who will have another choice for design school.

– College for Creative Studies President Don Tuski

“I’m eager to see the ingenuity that will once again come from students at the Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design, as well as the future they envision for their communities,” Bullock said in a press statement.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan also has thrown his support behind the college.

“As a predominantly Black city, this helps send a clear message that we are building one city, for everyone with opportunity for everyone,” Duggan said in a prepared statement.

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Shanika P. Carter
Shanika P. Carter

Shanika P. Carter is a freelance writer, author, and adjunct communications instructor. She is also the Principal Consultant of The Write Flow & Vibe, LLC (www.writeflowandvibe.com), offering writing, editing, and content development services to a variety of clientele, including fellow authors and businesses. Shanika has written for various publications, including Blackdoctor.org, The Lakeshore West Michigan, Rapid Growth Media, Grander Magazine, and Women’s Lifestyle Magazine. She is the author of the nonfiction book To Lead or Not to Lead, which was released in 2019.

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