Twenty-five years ago, when East Liberty was never referred to as “Eastside,” when African Americans could be seen shopping shoulder-to-shoulder along Penn Avenue, Jamil Brookins opened a small store dedicated to providing the community with African-style clothing, earrings, books, and in his son’s words, “empowerment.”
Today, many of the Black outside vendors that once lined the streets in East Liberty are gone. Many stores are also gone, replaced with stores that seem to attract a more millennial, Caucasian consumer.
Except Jamil’s Global Village. It’s still there.
And the store plans to remain there or somewhere in East Liberty, according to Rafiq Brookins, the son of Jamil Brookins, who passed away from cancer in the early morning hours of Sept. 9. He was 70 years old.
“He fought hard to build a business that would sustain and support his family,” Rafiq Brookins told the New Pittsburgh Courier in an exclusive interview, Sept. 12. “And through all the obstacles that African Americans in particular are faced with in America, he almost performed an impossible feat, especially here in Pittsburgh, where it’s very segmented and divided. And he did it with his own strength, his own ideas, his own ambitions.”
Jasiri X, co-founder of 1Hood Media and an outspoken activist on issues related to race and politics, posted on his Facebook page that Pittsburgh “lost a true legend…Jamil Brookins was not just the owner of Jamil’s in East Liberty for over 20 years, he was a community leader, mentor, father, brother, Muslim. Whenever he would contact me it would never be for him, it would always be to help someone or something in our community.”
Jasiri X added: “Thank you for your life of sacrifice, brother Jamil. I’ll miss coming into the store and getting eternal wisdom along with whatever I bought. May Allah bless your family and loved ones with peace.”
Rafiq Brookins told the Courier a funeral service for Jamil Brookins was held the same day of his death at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh in Oakland. More than 100 people attended.
Jamil’s Global Village, which stands at the corner of Penn Avenue and Sheridan Square, is known for its African and Islamic books, earrings, pendants, and clothing. It’s one-of-a-kind in Pittsburgh. “We provide something that you cannot get elsewhere, which is a place that gives you history, and it provides you with products that actually help heal you and bring you an overall benefit,” Rafiq Brookins told the Courier. “As our saying goes on the (front of the) store, we provide products for the mind, body and the spirit, and this is something that you normally cannot find in stores these days.”
Rafiq Brookins said his father always wanted Black people to love “who they were,” love “their history” and to “educate themselves on their history.” Jamil Brookins felt that Black and African American people had been so “systematically destroyed over the past 400-plus years. He sought to empower those very people.”
And so, Jamil’s Global Village opened its doors in the early ‘90s. Its target audience was within steps of the store. But over the years, the number of African American residents in East Liberty began to decline drastically, and the term “Eastside” became synonymous with the area, as the trendy Target store opened just seconds from Jamil’s. Then came more stores such as Trader Joe’s, and the creation of apartments with high price tags.
African American-oriented stores such as David’s Shoes, Mo’ Gear and Ace Athletic have all left East Liberty. Rafiq Brookins told the Courier that Jamil’s Global Village has every intention of staying in East Liberty, though it’s not a guarantee the store will remain at its current location, 6024 Penn Ave.
“We’re fighting to secure a more permanent location,” Rafiq Brookins told the Courier. “If not this location, somewhere close in the vicinity. Not only that, we’re looking to expand, as well.”
Rafiq Brookins said the closing of stores in East Liberty which had high African American audiences, coupled with the opening of more mainstream-audience clothing stores such as Bonobos and Homage, is nothing new.
“This is the very nature on what America has been since 1492 when the very first Europeans came to this continent—they gentrified it from the very beginning, and it hasn’t stopped since. (Jamil’s Global Village) is just one business out of millions and millions of communities, cultures, tribes that have been affected the same way.”
The closing of Jamil’s Global Village would also halt the ability for local entrepreneurs to have their products sold in stores. Rafiq Brookins said Jamil’s Global Village often purchases items—clothes, pendants, lotions—from people in the city, and then it’s resold in the store. It’s a good way for others to be promoted, as well.
“We’re looking to build an empire,” Rafiq Brookins said.
But “closing” is not in the plans, Rafiq Brookins emphatically told the Courier. “We want stuff like this to always be around because it’s difficult to come across place like this.”
Rafiq Brookins said that his father’s memory and legacy will live on, especially through the store he opened more than a quarter-century ago. “We want to spread love, we want to spread unity,” Rafiq Brookins said. “That’s what my father stood for—love, unity, respect, and justice.”
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