Lewis College of Business in Detroit

By Nyah Marshall, Howard University News Service

The future of HBCUs seemed worrisome with five Historically Black Colleges and Universities having closed in the last two decades and many others open in name only after losing accreditation. Today, enrollment is up at several HBCUs, donations are flowing and the Lewis College of Business in Detroit becomes the first to officially reopen. 

D’Wayne Edwards, founder of Pensole Design Academy in Portland, launched the initiative to resurrect Michigan’s only HBCU. 

Lewis College, now known as Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design (PLC), is the only HBCU focusing on design as “the pipeline HBCU for career education and professional development in the design industry.” With a mission statement that further claims, “We are the source for creative vision and progress to push the culture forward — beyond what’s visible,” it is evident that PLC intends to keep the HBCU experience alive.  

Edwards defines PLC’s HBCU experience through the unique academic experience and range of networks that will be offered.

“I have access to every Black footwear designer in the industry; we have access to every Black apparel designer in the industry,” said Edwards, who has designed shoes for premier athletes such as Michael Jordan, Carmelo Anthony and Derek Jeter.

“I have access to graphic designers, access to engineers” he added. “Pensole has access to most Black creatives. That’s who’s gonna teach. That’s who’s gonna mentor students. That’s who’s gonna come and guest-lecture. So, when it comes to what we’re doing, it’s a complete immersion into Black creativity.”

Not only did Edwards and PLC’s board of directors expand the mission statement of Lewis College to fit its design focus, but they also had to expand state legislation to reopen the colleges since no guidelines or steps existed in Michigan.

Throughout his 30-plus years in design, Edwards noticed a lack of representation, particularly of Black designers in the sneaker industry.  

“When I started in the industry in ’89, I was only the second Black designer in the whole industry,” he said. “I saw a need of this industry needing more people who look like us in it. And the industry wasn’t doing enough, fast enough, to make it happen.”

Edwards has also taught at some of the nation’s top design schools, including The New School for Design and the Art Center College of Design Pasadena, California. His passion for teaching and creating spaces for Black designers in the industry is what prompted him to start Pensole and ultimately bring this program to Detroit. 

“I just wanted to understand what education was. So, I can break all the rules, because I knew education was broken, and it had to be changed,” Edwards said. “We created Pensole, a free design academy where kids didn’t have to pay tuition. They didn’t have to pay for their housing. Every program that we did led to an internship of some kind.” 

Pensole’s free-tuition model has already placed well over 500 students in the design industry. It will be implemented in Detroit upon the official opening of the Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design on May 2. Steadily, PLC plans to add elements to the college to strengthen the academic experience. 

In February, PLC is offering five-week-long master classes, where students will be eligible for internships upon completion. NIKE and Serena Williams, Versace and Jimmy Choo, Adidas, Jordan, New Balance, J Crew and many other brands looking to hire Black talent will be among the corporate partners funding PLC programs, Edwards said. 

Students who start regular classes in fall 2023 can earn a “Bachelor of Knowledge,” the equivalent of an associate degree, within two and a half years.

Support for PLC is coming in part from Target’s  Racial Equity Action and Change (REACH) strategy, and its new five-year, $100 million commitment to aid the economic and social prosperity of Black communities. The Gilbert Family Foundation, led by Dan and Jennifer Gilbert, has also invested in the college as part of its $500 million joint commitment to the Gilberts’ hometown of Detroit.

The College of Creative Studies (CCS), a well-established and notable art and design school in Detroit, is a key partner for PLC. Instruction will take place at CCS, until PLC officially moves to its own building. 

To complement other HBCUs, Edwards is also looking to launch a network at sister schools that may not have a design program. Students will be able to take free online design courses at PLC. Edwards plans to start this program with a larger HBCU. Details will be announced in February.

“Ultimately, we’re providing free education to kids who go to HBCUs that don’t have a design program,” Edwards said, “or they’re at a school and they majored in something else, because maybe their parents thought it was a better idea. Something safer, right? But you still have your creative aspirations. And now we become an outlet for you to do that for free.”

PLC has historic roots. Businesswoman and educator Viola T. Lewis established the Lewis College of Business in 1928 during the Great Depression with a $50 loan and a mission to provide Black women with opportunities as secretaries. She became one of three Black women who have founded an HBCU. While Lewis College was initially a secretarial school in Indianapolis, segregation laws prompted Lewis to move the college to Detroit.

The condition of the school, leadership concerns and lack of a plan to meet future challenges was what prompted the Higher Learning Commission to withdraw Lewis College’s accreditation in 2007. The school struggled to regain accreditation, and the loss of faculty, staff and students led to its closing in 2013. 

During the 80 years it was open, more than 2,500 students graduated from Lewis College and close to 27,000 part-time and full-time students attended its classes. Now that Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, has signed two bills to reestablish the school as the Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design, the legacy that Viola T. Lewis started will continue. 

Nyah Marshall is a reporter for HUNewsService.com and bureau chief for a region that includes Michigan.

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