Pan African Connection opened in 1989 and became a beacon for African culture in Dallas. Founder Bandele Tyehimba worked for Boeing at night while running the bookstore during the day until he could quit his job. The shop, which also carries African art, clothing and jewelry, was on Jefferson Boulevard for 21 years before moving to South Dallas for a few years. Now they’re back in Oak Cliff, in the Glendale Shopping Center on Marsalis at Ann Arbor. Bandele Tyehimba died at age 58 in 2012. His wife, Akwete, stepped up to keep the dream alive, and she says she could never close the store. “It was his vision,” Akwete Tyehimba says. “If it weren’t for him, I doubt very seriously I would even be here today. It was to create an institution where people could learn about their history. To bring people closer to Africa.” Tyehimba, 56, retired a few years ago from Delta Airlines, where she worked as a reservationist for 19 years. Flight benefits from Delta allowed the Tyhehimbas to travel frequently to West Africa, primarily Ghana, where they made friends and bought things to bring back for their store. She and her children received flight benefits for life as part of her retirement package, so they continue frequent travel to Africa.
Tyehimba is from Waco, and she says she was “very status quo” with “Farrah Fawcett hair” when she met her husband at a Black Student Organization meeting at Northlake College, where he was passing out “revolutionary-type literature.” “We say we’re born in America, but Africa is our home.”
Photography by Danny Fulgencio.
On the most difficult thing she’s overcome: Right after my husband passed away. Even though I’ve always helped run the store, I could lie back a little and let him handle the challenges of the business. He passed away in the bookstore, and I was the one who found him. I had to be strong for my children, strong for the family, so I had to carry a lot of responsibility. It’s difficult to carry that weight. I worried whether people would respect me as they respected him, because he was highly respected all over the world. I’m not Bandele. I can never be him, but I do the best that I can.
Misconceptions people have about her business: People think we’re just here for the black community. No, we’re here for all people. We’re here to lift up the culture. About 20 percent of our customer base is Hispanic. We have European customers. We are here for everybody. Mother Africa is here to help everybody. That’s one misconception they have about us. Ninety-nine percent of my customers are Christians; some are Muslim. We serve a wide base of folks who understand this institution is needed.
What she’s proud of besides work: I’m proud of the men and women who came before us. Black heroes. My mother raised 10 kids. My parents were married over 50 years. I’m proud of that foundation. As far as Dallas is concerned, I’m riding the coattails of others who came before me: Kathlyn Gilliam, Diane Ragsdale, Juanita Craft. So many people sacrificed. We look to those who came before us. Emma Rodgers had the first black bookstore in Dallas. We get to carry on that work.
The best advice she’s received: Be honest. Every day, try to become more honest, because we all have a struggle inside of us. Surround yourself with those who make you better.
The greatest gift in her life: Every day I’m given a gift because I see so many positive people. There are bad things happening in the world, but it doesn’t get me down because I see people who are doing things for change.
Advice to her younger self: Stay focused, and be authentic. Trust the journey. Sometimes we feel like things are crazy, but have faith and know that everything’s all right.
How she would like to be remembered: Martin Luther King Jr. told us not to mention the degrees he had or the Nobel Prize, but to remember that he served humanity. That’s why we’re here. I could die with a billion dollars in the bank, but who cares? It’s the work that people will remember. I lived to try to serve humanity.
On gender discrimination: Even today, with me running the business, some people don’t want to give the respect that they would give a man.
On working with her family: My son is full time in the store. My other children help when they’re not working. I couldn’t do this without my children.
On supporting the neighborhood: We allow our space to be used by many nonprofits. We have homebuyer classes, girls’ empowerment, yoga classes, dance classes. I can’t even tell you how many there are.
On work-life balance: I ran two half marathons last year. I’m working on that full one, but I don’t know about that.
If she could have dinner with any living person: Assata Shakur. She’s a living revolutionary. She has been demonized by many, but we must choose our heroes and she-roes. She’s a living example of a revolutionary and resistance to injustice.
The biggest problem our community faces: Gentrification. People are being displaced by those who don’t have the community’s interest at heart. Police brutality across the country is an ongoing challenge. I don’t know if it’s institutional racism or a lack of training … I respect working men and women. Police officers are working men and women. But it’s a pervasive mentality that needs to be overturned.