Violet Temple Lewis – an educational trailblazer for African American women

The Lewis College of Business, Detroit, Michigan

This is the fourth of my posts based on a recent tour of the eastern half of the USA. I visited a number of sites relevant to African American history. To mark Black History Month, I am relating some of the things I saw, in the order I saw them.

As I was wondering through the streets near my hotel in Detroit, I came across one of the many historic plaques which one sees right across America. The plaque was next to this house (above) in John R Street, Detroit. It records that this building became, in 1941, the office of the Lewis College of Business. It said:

Violet T. Lewis had established the college in Indianapolis in 1925 to train black women for business careers. Ten years later the Detroit Chamber of Commerce invited her to open a school here. The college was located at this site from 1941 to 1976 when its expansion required more spacious quarters. In the first fifty years it educated over 20,000 students. The United States Department of Education designated the Lewis College of Business a “Historically Black College” in 1957. It was the first college in the state (of Michigan) to receive such recognition.

The story of Violet Lewis is an inspiring one, Amsterdam News notes:

Lewis’ story began in 1897 in Lima, Ohio, where she was born. After graduation from Wilberforce in 1917, she worked at Selma University for a year before a brief tenure as a bookkeeper for the Madame CJ Walker Company. From 1920 to 1927 she was employed at the Indianapolis Recorder. It was during these stints of employment that she noticed the lack of Black women as secretaries. That absence and the impact of the Great Depression motivated her to establish her own school in her home. Gradually, as cited above, she secured the means to move to a larger location and to serve more students.

She is recorded within the Michigan Womens Hall of Fame with this citation:

Violet Temple Lewis was a trailblazing educator born in Lima, Ohio, on May 27, 1899. Her goal was to improve the economic status of women by providing training in marketable skills for jobs and decent incomes to support themselves and their families.

At the onset of a nationwide economic depression, she founded the Lewis Business College in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1929. The Detroit Chamber of Commerce asked her to do the same. Lewis then founded Detroit’s Lewis Business College and steered it from a nine-month stenographic course to an accredited junior college. The Detroit facility is the U.S. Department of Education’s only
designated historical Black college in Michigan. Her school gave countless numbers of women the opportunity for development and growth and a chance for a better life. An active civic leader, in 1953 Lewis established the March of Dimes Extravaganza Committee, which has since raised over $800,000 for the March of Dimes Foundation.

A co-founder of Gamma Phi Delta, a professional and businesswomen’s sorority with 87 chapters nationwide, Lewis was honored by many organizations during her life and received an honorary doctorate from her alma mater, Wilberforce University in Wilberforce, Ohio. As an educator and business and community leader, her initiative and accomplishments paved the way for greater opportunity for all women and minorities. She died on March 22, 1968 in Detroit.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist and member of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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  • Lorenzo Cherin 5th Oct '17 - 1:24am


    Another fine piece. Is the college mentioned named after our very own British William Wilberforce ?

    I do think perhaps you missed one or two comments of both praise and interaction on your recent posts where I did not head the comments with your name. I am very delighted with these pieces, if you knew the detail of the project I am preparing, which I shall reveal in due course and which shall interest you , I know, you would see quite why.

    Meanwhile , another film I discovered recently that is on African American history, T he Great Debaters, directed by and with him , in the cast, Denzel Washington. A terrific movie, you may have seen, otherwise , do.

  • Chris Burden 6th Oct '17 - 11:55am

    I agree with Lorenzo. This is an excellent piece, part of a really good series. Thank you, Paul.

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