Detroit College Set to Make History as First Closed HBCU to Ever Reopen

In 1928, The Lewis College of Business was founded by Violet Lewis with $50 and a mission to provide Black women education and opportunities as secretaries. But in 2013, the college closed after a steady financial decline and losing its accreditation. Now, it is being reborn as the PENSOLE Lewis College of Business and Design in Detroit, becoming the first ever historically Black college or university to reopen.

The effort is being spearheaded by D’Wayne Edwards, a footwear designer and founder of the PENSOLE Design Academy in Portland, Oregon.

Edwards began drawing shoes when he was 12, which eventually led him into an illustrious career designing shoes for athletes like Carmelo Anthony, Derek Jeter and, the star with arguably the most famous shoe brand, Michael Jordan.

In 2010, Edwards opened the PENSOLE Design Academy after spending years mentoring young footwear designers and not seeing any colleges teaching solely footwear design.

“Here you have this $60 billion industry with no direct pipeline associated with it,” Edwards told The Plug. “What I wanted to do was kind of bridge that gap between corporate America and the education sector.”

Edwards is now combining his passion for teaching with his desire to train students in Detroit and increase diversity in corporate footwear design.

“As a predominantly Black city, Detroit should have an operating Historically Black College. Not having one has been a hole in our educational landscape for too long,” Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said in a statement.

Reopening a college and getting it accredited is no easy feat — nor is it cheap. Edwards is funding much of the effort himself along with support from Target and the Gilbert Family Foundation.

A Target spokesperson said the company will invest an initial donation of $2.5 million in the PENSOLE Lewis College to fund the first year. Target’s support of the school is part of a newly announced $100 million investment over the next five years to help advance racial equity and fuel economic prosperity in Black communities across the U.S. 

“With this commitment, we aim to support the next generation of Black talent, expand the impact of Black-led movements and voices, and create economic opportunity in Black communities across the country,” Amanda Nusz, Senior Vice President of Corporate Responsibility and President of the Target Foundation, said in a statement.

The investment from The Gilbert Family Foundation is part of the organization’s ongoing $500 million commitment to their hometown of Detroit.

Edwards is also working with the College for Creative Studies (CCS), a private art school in Detroit, to help the PENSOLE Lewis College gain accreditation. CCS and PENSOLE are working together to develop the legal and operational structure of PENSOLE Lewis, which will be a joint venture between the two entities.

This is not Edwards’ first time working with an HBCU. Students from Prairie View A&M University, Howard University and Bowie State University have learned at the PENSOLE Design Academy.

Majority-free college

Edwards will be using an innovative business model for this iteration of the Detroit HBCU, one that does not rely on tuition to stay afloat but instead partners with companies to finance students’ education.

In the past, Edwards has worked with corporations such as Nike, Brand Jordan, Adidas and others to pay for students’ education at the PENSOLE Design Academy. He will be adopting that same model at the PENSOLE Lewis College.

Edwards did not say which companies will be financing the first cohort of students but did say it would be similar to ones he has worked with in the past.

There will be 60 to 80 students in the inaugural cohort. The school will teach footwear design, functional apparel and accessories design, color and material design, shoe making and 3D design, and will offer six-week, 12-week, one-year and two-year programs.

“All of our programs are structured as if it was a real job,” Edwards said.

“That’s why the companies support our programs because basically these kids are in a six-week or 12-week job interview. That extended process, it helps identify flaws, it helps identify weaknesses and strengths. It identifies passion,” he added.

At the end of the program, students leave with a certification from the company that paid for them to be there and some form of internship or full-time job.

The school will initially be housed on the CCS campus and officially opens on March 13, 2022. Though it is a Sunday, it is also Detroit Day and Edwards wanted to make sure the school’s doors reopened then.

“We feel the significance of celebrating the first session on the day that celebrates the city,” Edwards said.

In 2023, the school will begin adding business classes. Five years down the line, Edwards envisions a sister school relationship with other HBCUs to give students a more well rounded learning experience.

But Edwards does not dwell on the history he is making by reopening the first ever HBCU.

“I didn’t do this to be a founder or president or have any high-ranking position or title,” he said. “I want to teach, that’s where my love of design is now. It was creating products in the past, but now it’s passing on what I’ve been able to acquire over all of this time.”

Mirtha Donastorg

Mirtha Donastorg is a corps member with Report for America and The Plug's HBCU Innovation Editor and Senior Reporter, exploring start-up initiatives and innovations coming from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, as well as the way students are shaping the future of tech. She previously worked as an associate producer and a researcher for CNN.