Detroit's comeback efforts linked to an 85-year-old HBCU making a return of its own

·National Reporter & Producer
·8-min read

The Lewis College of Business in Detroit had been Michigan’s only historically Black college or university (HBCU) for more than seven decades before it was shuttered in 2013 due to financial hardship and a steep decline in enrollment. But eight years after closing, the school is set to make a return — only this time under a slightly new name and an entirely new mission.

Former Air Jordan designer Dr. D’Wayne Edwards is refounding the school as the Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design with an all-around focus on design, a nod to the Pensole Design Academy he founded in 2010, the country’s first academy dedicated to footwear design.

“Of the HBCUs that are in existence today, very few of them have a focus on design,” Edwards told Yahoo News. “We hope what we’re doing by reestablishing Lewis College is that it’ll help people look at Detroit as an epicenter for creativity and design.”

Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design founder Dr. D'Wayne Edwards stands in front of an old building that belonged to the Lewis College of Business
Dr. D’Wayne Edwards in front of what used to be the Lewis College of Business in Detroit. (Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design)

The Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design will be the first HBCU to focus solely on design — from footwear to furniture and packaging — and will offer students both two-year and four-year degrees, as well as special certificates, working directly with corporate partners to help students’ transition into careers after graduation.

Edwards said he wants to provide opportunities for the city of Detroit and Black youth. More than three decades ago, he said, he was only the second Black footwear designer in the entire footwear industry. Today there are fewer than 200 globally, and across the design industry as a whole, Black people make up less than 4 percent.

Now Edwards wants to use the school to help create the next wave of Black designers in and around the city who have often had to go elsewhere.

“Our goal from the very beginning is to find kids, meet them where they are and show them the opportunity [with design], and then leverage our experience and our knowledge in the industry so they can take it and elevate the industry,” he said.

Having been the global center of the automotive industry for more than a century, Detroit is no stranger to development and production at scale. Ford Motor Co. was founded there in 1903, and an industry boom in the early 1900s alongside severe job loss in the South led to tens of thousands of Southerners relocating to Detroit. It eventually became the fourth most populated city in the U.S. in the 1920s.

Henry Ford in his first automobile, the Quadracycle, on Grand Boulevard in Detroit around 1900.
Henry Ford in his first automobile, the Quadricycle, on Grand Boulevard in Detroit around 1900. (Getty Images via Bettmann Archive)

But since the 1970s, automation in car manufacturing, along with factories and mostly white residents moving to the suburbs and the Sun Belt, left the city with just 37 percent of its peak population. In 2013 Detroit became the largest city to file for bankruptcy.

The city has been working to turn itself around with the emergence of new restaurants and bars, a growing art scene and a revitalized downtown area. But a study from Michigan State University revealed that much of the progress has been limited to a 7-square-mile radius in a city of 139 square miles.

Local leaders believe the refounding of Lewis College brings with it a chance for the city to redefine itself once again.

“We’re really excited about the school,” Detroit Deputy Mayor Conrad Mallett told Yahoo News. “It’s a huge moment that could really set off on its own a creative process that will have a number of positive effects in the community.”

Mallett also acknowledges the challenges ahead. Detroit has the highest rate of concentrated poverty among the 25 largest metro areas in the United States. Black people make up 78 percent of inner-city Detroit’s population of 664,000; the city has a 35 percent poverty rate and high rates of crime and unemployment; and it is the most racially segregated city in America.

A view of downtown Detroit in 2011.
Downtown Detroit in 2011. (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

But Mallett sees the new school as an opportunity for a rebound.

“The fact that it’s an HBCU is important ... but we still have a long way to go,” he said. “Dr. Edwards is bringing an institution of higher learning back to the city that has a 21st century mission of designing.

“Imagine the spiritual connectivity with young men and women across the world who will come to Detroit for this education and some will stay,” he added. “Even if they don’t, they will take away with them the fondness of the city and all it has to offer. ... We celebrate this arrival.”

With the Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design, Edwards wants to show young Black men and women that they can fulfill their wildest dreams, like the one he had of playing in the NBA while growing up in Inglewood, Calif. While he never made it playing professional basketball, he has designed sneakers for some of the biggest names the sport has ever seen, including Michael Jordan and Carmelo Anthony. Outside of playing professional sports and being a musician, Edwards hopes he can inspire young people to achieve their goals by flexing creative muscles behind the scenes in these arenas.

Comerica Park is seen in the middle of downtown Detroit in 2006. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Comerica Park in the middle of downtown Detroit in 2006. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

It’s a simple formula that brings the Lewis school back to its roots.

The Lewis College of Business was originally founded in Indianapolis in 1928 by Violet T. Lewis as a secretarial school for Black women. After graduating from HBCU Wilberforce University in Ohio and starting in her career as a bookkeeper, Lewis saw how few Black secretaries there were and the need for more. So she created a school where Black women could gain the same skills she had learned in college. A decade after the business school’s founding, in 1938, Lewis opened the Detroit campus, which would later become the sole campus after it outpaced the original one.

Almost a century after its initial founding date, the Lewis school is getting a second start. And with the rebirth of the college, many supporters see the possibility of what could be — the restoration of a booming economy in Detroit and a renaissance of a budding industry that has historically left Black America behind.

“HBCUs are needed now more than ever,” Lezli Baskerville, president of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO), a nonprofit that represents the interests of HBCUs, told Yahoo News. “In America, at a time when corporations are saying diversity is great for the workplace and country, America can’t realize the closing of the education gap, wealth and health gap, without HBCUs. It’s not possible because they are punching above their weight in all of these high-needs areas.”

There are currently 101 HBCUs across the U.S., with most of them located in the South. At their height in the 1930s there were 121 HBCUs. The Lewis College of Business would be the first of the 20 that closed to reopen.

HBCU North Carolina A&T's marching band performs during halftime of Howard University's 93rd annual Homecoming game on Saturday at Greene Stadium on campus in Washington, DC.
HBCU North Carolina A&T’s marching band at halftime of Howard University’s 93rd annual homecoming game on Saturday at Greene Stadium in Washington, D.C. (Cheriss May/NurPhoto)

Companies are also beginning to acknowledge both the financial and intellectual contributions Black people have made to American design and culture.

Footwear and apparel titan Nike released a sustainability report in March of this year in which company president and chief executive officer John Donahoe wrote, “Our brand would not be what it is today without the powerful contributions of Black athletes and Black culture.”

In 2020 the sneaker industry generated $70 billion alone, according to business data company Statista, but Black designers, retailers and artists saw a fraction of this.

Meanwhile, Black buying power continues to climb. Black Americans accounted for $1.6 trillion of the market in 2020, according to the Selig Center for Economic Growth, more than the gross domestic product of Mexico. And it’s expected to grow to nearly $2 trillion by 2024.

Edwards wants to ensure Black designers get an equitable share of the culture they heavily influence and curate. Under his leadership, the Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design plans to open enrollment in December of this year once the school receives state legislative approval, which Edwards says should happen before Christmas. On March 13, 2022, otherwise known as Detroit Day for the city’s area code, the college plans to have its first day of classes with upward of 300 students.

A portion of downtown Detroit along the Detroit River in 2013.
A portion of downtown Detroit along the Detroit River in 2013. (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

Target, as a part of its Racial Equity Action and Change strategy, and Dan and Jennifer Gilbert, through the Gilbert Family Foundation, will finance the school’s launch and reopening by investing millions to help cover full tuition and housing for enrolled students.

For Edwards, bringing back Lewis College is part legacy, part destiny.

“Detroit found me,” he said. “There’s already so many amazing people that are in the city. They unfortunately sometimes have to leave the city to pursue their artistic dreams outside of the city. We’re hoping that we can actually help maintain that creativity in the city.”

Cover thumbnail: Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Pensole Lewis/Lewis College of Business (2), Getty Images


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