Pensole Lewis College
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The man that saved Detroit’s HBCU

“What we’re teaching is product creation. We have the knowledge that the kids acquire with us, and they’ll be able to apply it to any company that produces a product.”

Detroit’s closed HBCU Lewis Business College reopens with a purpose to become a leader in the design industry. The Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design (PLC) is now the first Historically Black College or University (HBCU) to reestablish. 

“There was a need that’s been around for a long time, and it was never met,” said D’Wayne Edwards, President of the PLC. “What we’re doing is ultimately fulfilling the need that the industry has been asking for decades.” 

Edwards told HBCU Gameday that having the opportunity to open PLC is not that far from what has happened to previous HBCUs in the past. 

“If you look at the history of HBCUs, they have merged with several other schools and have to change their names,” said Edwards. “One part of the precedent is the reopening part of the equation because none of them have closed and never reopened.”

D’Wayne Edwards stands on the campus of the Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design (Photo: Pensole Lewis College)

When Violet Lewis saw African Americans moving to northern cities from the segregated South during the Great Depression in 1928, she started offering secretarial classes at her home in Indianapolis. When she opened her second campus in 1939 in Detroit, it officially became Lewis College of Business (LCB),  where they offered courses in typewriting, bookkeeping, stenography, and office management. However, inadequate leadership and a lack of a plan to meet their future challenges resulted in the school losing its accreditation and closing in 2013. The property went up for sale. 

The birth of Pensole

When Edwards started Portland-based Pensole Footwear Design Academy in 2010, he created an institution that teaches students to develop performance apparel and footwear design and teaching brand design and marketing. 

“A lot of what we do or have done for the last 12 years with the Academy has been career development for a specific industry no different than a nursing path or a welder,” He added.

Pensole School of Design
Edwards began the Pensole Footwear Design Academy in 2010, (Photo: Pensole Lewis College)

When talking to a former student on how Detroit design school College of Creative Studies (CCS) could build a relationship with them, the Design and Architecture Senior High School (DASH) and Florida A&M University, the conversation quickly turned into something completely different. 

“He casually mentioned, ‘hey! I think Detroit used to have an HBCU, and so I jumped on Google and started to research and ended up getting in contact with the realtor who was helping the family sell the property.”

He explained to the Lewis family that he wanted to merge his Pensole Academy with CCS and LBC, and they loved the idea. 

But the journey to opening took an unexpected turn when he could not legally open the school based on a technicality. 

No Precedent

“Because in the state of Michigan, there were no laws around if a college of any kind wanting to reopen, there was no roadmap for that college to follow.”

With the help of local and state lawmakers, Edwards had House Bills 5447 and 5448 drafted and approved by the state legislature. Governor Gretchen Witmer signed the bill in late December, and Detroit had its HBCU back.

Edwards is dedicated to increasing representation in the footwear design industry. (Photo: Pensole Lewis College)

When Edwards began his footwear design career in 1989, he became the second African American designer in the industry. However, he has dedicated his career to ensuring that he was not the last. 

“The industry, specifically on the footwear and apparel side, is well over a $100 billion industry, yet there’s five percent less representation in it,” Edwards said.           

When he left the industry in 2010 to start his academy, he specifically targeted how to change those numbers to become more diverse. 

“Two percent of African Americans graduate from a design school every year,” said Edwards. “So if you go there as your main recruiting tool, then you will end up where we’ve been for decades, which is the lack of representation.”

Get the Job

When classes begin at PLC, Edwards wants to focus less on his students getting the degree and more on getting the job.

“What we’re teaching is product creation. We have the knowledge that the kids acquire with us, and they’ll be able to apply it to any company that produces a product. So whether it’s a bag of chips or a can of soda to a pair of sneakers, we’re ultimately teaching product creation which is the focus on careers that lie in industries associated with companies that produce a product of any kind.” 

Academic training will be different too. When the first session begins in May, their structure will be further from the traditional college format. Instead, Edwards wants to create a curriculum that partners with the industry the students will enter after graduation. 

“These programs range from five weeks to 12 weeks, but [the classes] are every day, like a real job. So what we would do in five weeks is equivalent to a traditional 16-week semester, and what we would do in three months would be almost equivalent to an entire year at a traditional school,” said Edwards.

Motor City Buzz

The buzz around the Motor City is exciting anticipation for the possibilities of contributing to the deteriorating workforce causing several to leave. 

The partners behind the revival of Lewis College. (Photo: Pensole Lewis College)

“Detroit is a creative city that is very underrated, and a prideful city as well,” said Edwards. “A big chunk of the people that I have spoken to literally cry because they see it as an opportunity for creatives who are from Detroit to stay because they have to leave the city to look for opportunities. PLC gives Detroiters an opportunity to stay in their city, be better educated, and hopefully create opportunities for themselves here in the city.”

Enrollment for the May session begins at the end of January. For more information, subscribe to the school’s newsletter  

The man that saved Detroit’s HBCU
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