In 1928, it was hard for anybody to find a job, but it was the depression was particularly brutal for Black Americans, who were not accepted into any available higher education programs at the time. Violet Lewis, a bookkeeper in Indiana, began offering secretarial classes in her home, and when the program grew too popular for that, in a storefront. And so, in 1939, Lewis College of Business was born in Indianapolis with a second branch opening later in the year in Detroit.
In Detroit, it was the first business college to accept Black students. In 1940, Lewis closed the Indianapolis branch to focus on Detroit, where she also organized the Gamma Phi Delta sorority. It moved once in 1960, then again for the last time in 1976 when it merged with the Cleveland branch and became an official junior college.
Enrollment peaked in the 1980’s, and in 1987, the school was designated as Detroit’s only Historically Black College and University.
Things continued nicely all the way through the ’90s, but began to decline during the first decade of the 21st century, starting with lowering enrollment rates. Accreditation was removed in 2007 by the Higher Learning Commission, and the college never recovered. The staff quit halfway through a semester after not getting paid, and there weren’t enough students to continue. The building was last used by a church from 2009-2011 for classes in Microsoft Office.
During my 2013 visit, the power was still on, computers still running, and things were still relatively in order. But in 2014, the school was badly damaged by two suspicious fires and scrapping. What’s left of the ruined building is still there today.
But, even though the program didn’t adapt well to modern employment, it was necessary for the community, extremely successful in its time, and Lewis was certainly a trailblazer in higher education for a country struggling to get back on its feet.