Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design Kicks Off a New Era

An Oregon footwear design school merges with a defunct Detroit business college to create a new and historic HBCU
pensole lewis college of business and design
D’Wayne Edwards is reviving a defunct HBCU to train diverse students in various design disciplines, including his own specialty: footwear.

When D’Wayne Edwards started out in footwear design in 1989, he was one of the just two Black people he knew to be working in the industry. Over time, he rose to the position of senior designer at Nike, all the while making efforts to diversify his field, before quitting in 2011 to launch Pensole Design Academy in Portland, Oregon.

This spring, Edwards takes that pursuit to another level, relocating his academy to Detroit and merging it with the defunct Lewis College of Business to create the Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design. Classes will begin on May 2, making Lewis the nation’s first historically Black college or university (or HBCU) ever to be reopened. 

The focus on design — along with the decision to revive Lewis, which closed in 2013 — makes the academy unique among the 107 HBCUs. “Not only is Detroit predominantly African American, but it also has a rich history of design and creativity, from automotives to arts and music,” Edwards says.

Most HBCUs have storied pasts, and Lewis is no exception. In 1928, secretary Violet T. Lewis of Indianapolis grew frustrated with the soaring rate of unemployment among Black youths and launched the school. Equipped only with a $50 loan, and while working her full-time job, she founded a school to “provide Black women with the same secretarial skills she had acquired in college,” the Pensole Lewis website says. The Detroit branch opened in 1938 and eventually replaced the Indiana one. In 1987, it was named Michigan’s only HBCU, but in 2013, after serving some 40,000 students, it closed.

Although Congress wouldn’t coin the HBCU designation until its 1965 passage of the Higher Education Act, the schools began popping up in the late 19th century. At the time, they were essential to provide educational opportunities to Black Americans shut out of mainstream schools. Known for their diverse faculties, many HBCUs continue operating to this day as preferred environments for students of color. The best-known include Howard, Spelman, Tuskegee, and Xavier, and prominent alumni include Vice President Kamala Harris, director Spike Lee, and Motown legend Gladys Knight. 

“Blacks have far more postsecondary opportunities now than in the heyday of HBCUs, but given the school’s focus, I think Pensole Lewis could have a major impact on Detroit’s Black community,” historian Ken Coleman says.

D’Wayne Edwards
Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design founder D’Wayne Edwards

Edwards credits metro Detroit native Allen Largin, a Pensole alum, with inspiring the move by mentioning Lewis College, a school Edwards hadn’t heard of. “I immediately fell in love with Lewis’ story and developed a vision: I could finally establish a design-focused HBCU, while marrying that with business to honor Violet Lewis’ legacy,” he says.

He sought and received support from Lewis’ granddaughter, Violet Ponders, whose presidency at the school made her the third and final generation of Lewis women to helm it. Edwards also reached out to Detroit’s College for Creative Studies, which agreed to share its accreditation and lend classrooms at its Taubman Center for Design Education while Pensole Lewis builds its own site.

Through Largin, an executive at developer Dan Gilbert’s Rock Ventures, Edwards secured an unspecified contribution from the Gilbert Family Foundation. On Dec. 29, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed legislation reestablishing the HBCU.

The classes will run in five-to-six-week programs crafted in collaboration with design companies to meet industry needs, Edwards says. Partner brands, which for Pensole have included Nike, Asics, Adidas, and New Balance, will sponsor students, creating a “majority tuition-free” model that also guarantees a job for every graduate.

While the venue may have changed, Edwards stresses, the goal hasn’t. That’s why this month, Pensole Lewis launches biweekly recruitment sessions where local high school students will learn about the industry from Black designers.

As it stands, Edwards says, the major design firms still lag in diversity, with Black people making up just 5 percent of the staff. Meanwhile, the most prominent athletic shoe endorsers — LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Colin Kaepernick — tend to be Black. “It sends a message that in order to be successful in life, you have to have a ball or a microphone in your hand,” Edwards says. “I want to show kids they have options beyond what’s being fed to them on television.”

This story is part of the March 2022 issue of Hour Detroit. Read more in our digital edition