Dr. Marjorie Lewis Harris, 90, and her sister, Phyllis Lewis Ponders, 93, want the world to never forget about the contributions their mother, Violet T. Lewis, made to American history. They meticulously documented their mother’s place in Black history as the founder of Lewis College of Business, the only Historically Black College University (HBCU) in Detroit, which once trained many young African American women to enter the business workforce.
The college, which began in Indianapolis before moving to Detroit, is chronicled in the book “On Her Own Terms,” explaining how the college started first at their home in Indianapolis before they decided to move to Detroit in the 1940s.
Dr. Harris, who served as president of the college for almost 30 years, visited the Michigan Chronicle last week to drop off a copy of the book because, she said, “my mother was an honorable woman. Someone needs to tell that story.”
“Our mother was so unusual that I wanted the people in Detroit and Indiana to remember her during Black History Month because she was the cause for thousands of African American young women to get out into the world of business,” Harris said. “She was the first one to start a business school for young Black women in the Midwest. She came here through the recommendation of a friend and rented a building on the west side of Detroit to start the school.”
In the book the sisters wrote that their mother’s first trip to Detroit to find out about the suitability of a business school for Blacks was in 1938.
“When Mother began to inquire about and to investigate into the need for a business school in Detroit, she found the same educational climate for African Americans that she found in Indianapolis,” the duo wrote. “There were business schools in the city but they did not accept African American students. Again Mother was taken aback that racism extended as far north as Michigan.”
According to the book, after learning that Blacks could not attend business schools in the city, “Mother assumed, and rightly so, that there would be a lucrative market for the type of training that she could offer. She made the decision that Detroit was a place where her business school would be profitable and would also provide needed educational opportunities for young African Americans to get training that would prepare them for jobs.”
Crucial in getting the Lewis College of Business started was the Booker T. Washington Business Association (BTWBA), founded by Rev. William Peck, pastor of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The group was meeting weekly to discuss the needs of the Black community and how to help individual businesses succeed.
“Mother began her first excursions into opening a school in Detroit during the fall/winter if 1938. She learned through inquiries that Rev. Peck was pivotal to the acceptance by the community of an African American business and ultimately the success of that business,” the book noted. “Mother met with Rev. Peck, shared with him her plan to open a business school in Detroit and provided evidence of having had 10 successful years of experience in Indianapolis.
Rev. Peck then invited Violet Lewis to attend the BTWBA meetings to share her ideas of starting a business college, and to get feedback from the members on how to locate students who would be interested in attending.
Another group in Detroit according the Lewis sisters that was supportive in starting the college was the Housewives League, a national group of African American women founded by Fannie Peck, wife of Rev. Peck.
“Their specific goal and purpose was to help promote Black businesses. The officers of the Housewives League would meet with Black business, learn about their products, inspect the quality of products and services,” the sisters wrote.
“These women would work in the neighborhood, knock on doors, and ask the community to support a particular Black business in their immediate community.” But conversely, “the Housewives League would try to close down a business if it was not reputable. They would knock on doors, pass out flyers and encourage the African American community to boycott ill-reputable businesses.”
The women’s group started promoting and advertizing the soon-to-be- opened college.
For the college to start, Violet Lewis needed classroom equipment while a building site had been identified at West Warren and McGraw, and the Michigan Department of Education was already on the verge of approving a license to open the school after all necessary paperwork was filed.
Dr. Harris and her sister wrote in the book that the Royal Typewriter Company agreed to provide 40 typewriters with no down payment and no interest because their mother had signed a note to pay cash in full within 90 days.
“God was in this total plan and everything that occured. How unbelievable — a Black woman was able to get a major corporation to let her have a significant amount of equipment with no down payment,” the Lewis daughters recounted. “Mother did have a track record with the Royal Typewriter Company as she had purchased typewriters over the 10 years that she had been in business in Indianapolis.”
On Sep. 25, 1939, the college opened with 50 Detroit students who had registered.
“Mother was absolutely elated, considering she would not have 50 students in one year in Indianapolis. This opening day was an affirmation to her that the success of the branch school in Detroit was indeed imminent,” the sisters said.
The following year Violet Temple Harrison-Lewis moved to Detroit permanently to run the college.
In the chapter “What Will I Do Now, Lord?” the sisters discuss how Violet Lewis, who would become a member of Plymouth United Church of Christ, later viewed the landscape in Detroit, and the auto industry where the Black middle class was taking root.
“Student enrollment was much larger because Detroit was a much larger city than Indianapolis. Detroit was the automotive capital, with the upswing of the economy in the late thirties and early forties, the automobile manufacturers worked around the clock to put every American on wheels,” they said.
“Mother said it gave her much pleasure to get on the streetcars and sit next to working Black men who were coming from the factory, dirty and sweaty, but capable of taking care of their families, able to buy homes and to purchase cars.”