African American men migrated to the industrial Midwest in great numbers during World War I and in the 1920s, but Jim Crow policies kept them at the bottom of the labor queue, so their employment was often precarious and their wages uncertain. Most black women who came north had to work to support themselves and their families. Racial segregation and a lack of skills severely limited the ability of black women to earn much. A very few educated African American women worked at civil service jobs such as sorting the mail, and a handful were employed by northern school systems as they established de facto segregated schools. Most black women had no choice but to do domestic service in the home of a prosperous family or work in a low-level service sector job. Census 1940 counted 12,000 black women at work in Detroit. About 80 percent of them worked as domestic servants or in personal service, such as chambermaids and attendants.
Dr. Violet Lewis wished to give black women the chance to pursue office careers. Living in Indianapolis, she founded the Lewis College of Business there in 1928. A decade later, she came to Detroit, observed that the city's secretarial training programs excluded African American students, and encouraged the Chamber of Commerce to establish a school for black women. They were reluctant to do so, but one year later, she founded the Lewis College of Business in Detroit.
In the 1920s and 1930s, whites moved away from the East Ferry street neighborhood as the black ghetto expanded northwest along Hastings Street and intersecting streets including Frederick Douglas and Ferry. In 1941, Dr. Lewis moved her college into the James Murphy home at John R. and East Ferry. This is a two-and-one-half story rectangular gabled roof Colonial Revival style home. It is a brick house, but features extensive exterior detailing in stone, attractive dormers, lunette windows in the end gables and a pleasant cornice, indicating that this was built for a very prosperous person. James Murphy, the treasurer of the Murphy Chair Company had this home built in 1910.
Lewis College of Business was located in this home from 1941 through 1976. Originally, the focus was upon training black women for secretarial jobs, but after the Civil Rights decade, the college expanded programs and offerings, and began granting an Associate's degree. Needing additional space, the college moved to 17360 Meyers near the intersection of McNichols in northwest Detroit. In 1978, the Indianapolis and Detroit Lewis Colleges of Business were merged. It is now a small, private two-year college with about 200 students. It is the only Historically Black College or University in Michigan.
Architectural Style: Colonial Revival
Date of Completion of home: 1910
Dates of Use by Lewis College of Business: 1941 to 1976
Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: P25187. Listed June 30, 1988
Michigan Historical Market: Erected August 29, 1988. This is clearly visible at the intersection of John R. and East Ferry.
Note: Lewis College of Business is now located near the intersection of Meyers and McNichols in northwest Detroit.