Dr. Violet T. Lewis dreamed of someday having her own college to teach her people how to become secretaries. During the Great Depression, only white women were secretaries.
In her 71 years, Lewis got her own education at Wilberforce University in Ohio, and after working on several positions, she got the idea and did indeed open Lewis Business College. Steering it from a nine-month stenographic course to an accredited junior college, the Detroit facility was the U.S. Department of Education’s only designated historical Black college in Michigan, the first and only in the state.
Violet Temple Lewis’ story began in Lima, Ohio. Born May 27, 1897, to William and Eva Harrison, 34 years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, she was the second of six children.
After high school graduation, her father told her to either go to college or get a job. She applied and was accepted to Wilberforce University, graduating in 1917 from the secretarial program.
Her first job at Selma University was as a secretary for the president of the university. Violet could type, take shorthand and was qualified, so she was assigned to be an instructor in the university’s business department.
To be close to her family, she began to apply for jobs in Indianapolis, and was hired by the Madam C.J. Walker Company, the largest Black-owned company in the state. She was hired as a bookkeeper.
From 1920 to 1927, she was employed at the Indianapolis Recorder newspaper. She constantly said that there should be a school to train Black women in the community for jobs as a secretary, and one day her mother said, “Why don’t you stop talking about someone needing to start a school and start one yourself?” It was as if she said what Hosea 4:6 KJV says: “My people perish from a lack of knowledge.”
With only a $50 loan from a local bank made her dream a reality, while holding down a full-time job. Always extremely creative, Lewis started her own radio program, it was in 1932. She felt the radio program would boost enrollment at the school. Her program, “The Negro Melody Hour,” made her the first Black radio announcer in Indiana, increased her student enrollment and eventually became so popular that she branched out to other cities, including Detroit.
Violet had saved up $1000, and she was able to purchase her first school to accommodate all. It was a mansion located at John R & Ferry. It cost $10,000 with her initial deposit of $1,000. The year was 1939, which later became a landmark in the city of Detroit. Then-Michigan Gov. James Blanchard was there to cut the ribbon when the historic marker was unveiled. Basketball star Isiah Thomas was also present.
Lewis Business College trained students as a full person, dressing for success, manners, how to sit and eat, they wore gloves, dressed appropriately. She knew her students needed the poise, grace and etiquette of a sorority similar to those collegiate types. Lewis Business College was not a part of the PanHellenic sorority; instead, it would be a business and professional sorority. She asked her sister, Elizabeth Garner to take the lead. February 20, 1943, her dream became a reality, and Gamma Phi Delta Sorority, Inc. was born.
She died on March 22, 1968, in Detroit. After her death, her two daughters continued to run the college. The older daughter, Dr. Phyllis Ponders, became the dean, and her sister, Dr. Marjorie Harris, became the president of the college. The two sisters worked closely together, continuing to serve citizens of Detroit in the original mansion for eight more years.
In 1976, the sisters moved the college to Meyers Road with an 11-acre campus. Lewis received a posthumous honorary doctorate from her alma mater, Wilberforce University. In 1978, the university received accreditation from the North Central College of Business and Schools as a junior college offering a liberal arts program. Then in 1987, the U.S. education secretary designated Lewis College of Business as one of the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and in 1992, Lewis was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame.
Her school gave thousands of men and women the opportunity for development and growth and a chance for a better life. In its 80-plus years, it educated over 40,000 students. Violet knew that men and women were employed as elevator operators, maids, cleaning men and ladies bathrooms, janitorial services, window dressers for department stores, she made history.
The first African Americans hired by the “Big Three” — General Motors, Chryslers and Ford Motor Car Company — were graduates of Lewis Business College. The first from Detroit and Wayne County were also students from Lewis. The federal government was beginning to hire Blacks, and Michigan Bell hired Lewis students, too.
Her grandchildren from both sides also worked for the college. Her granddaughter, Dr. Violet Ponders, became the third college president after her Aunt Marjorie retired.
Lyndia Grant is a speaker/writer living in the D.C. area. Her radio show, “Think on These Things,” airs Fridays at 6 p.m. on 1340 AM (WYCB), a Radio One station. To reach Grant, visit her website, www.lyndiagrant.com, email email@example.com or call 240-602-6295. Follow her on Twitter @LyndiaGrant and on Facebook.