Out of Africa House

August 1, 1999

Tseghe Foote won a huge lawsuit, but hasn't seen a penny. And business is worse than ever.

 

What is it like to run a gift store in a shopping center you've successfully sued for nearly $3 million? Africa House owner Tseghe Foote compares it to going through a nasty divorce and then being forced to sleep with your ex-husband.

 

Uncomfortable? You bet.

 

A federal jury last February awarded Foote $2.85 million, possibly the state's largest landlord discrimination award, against the Yarmouth Group Property Management and Tabor Center Associates.

 

Yarmouth and TCA no longer manage and own the Tabor Center, the upscale shopping center on downtown Denver's 16th Street Mall. But most Yarmouth Group staff work for the new management team, Urban Properties Inc., meaning Foote can't avoid people a federal court said illegally tried to evict her.

 

Why stay? Because, according to the court, it's her right.

 

In 1982, Foote launched Africa House from her home. After subsequent moves and steady growth, she established her shop at the Tabor Center in 1992.

 

Four years later, planning a buying trip to Africa before Christmas and eyeing a second location, she found her third-floor space had been leased out from under her.

 

Foote filed her discrimination lawsuit, and won. Her opponents plan to appeal the verdict.

 

Foote's tenacity came from experience. She tells of growing up in a large Ethiopian family and dreaming of owning her own business. She met and married an American and moved to the United States in 1976, then spent eight years working for May D&F, learning all she could about retail management.

 

Meanwhile, she combined her true loves - business and African art - in a home gift service, later developing it into a retail shop. Eventually, she had two retail locations, but settled on the Tabor store. Today, Africa House sells handmade African arts and crafts that range from life-size statues and hand-carved wooden wall ornaments to earrings, bracelets, colorful vases and masks.

 

"My customers are more diverse, travelers," she said. "Tourists love it. Often they say, 'This is like a museum.'"

 

In 1996, Foote took out a $100,000 Small Business Administration-backed loan, using her home as collateral, in part to fund a trip to Africa to replenish her pre-Christmas inventory. She also was considering adding a location.

 

Then the boom lowered.

 

Management had seemed reluctant to renew her month-to-month lease, she said. And it suggested that she change the name of her business because it wasn't "glamorous enough." Mall manager Daniel J. Hill said, "When we have a name like your name, the value of the property goes down," her suit claimed. She began to suspect racial discrimination.

 

"Suddenly, I realized I'm losing my business and everything I worked for," she said. "I cried as if somebody died."

 

Eyeing an unexpected relocation, she called a real estate friend and looked for nearby space. When that failed, she hired a lawyer who used a temporary restraining order and injunction to work out Plan B: space on the second floor of the Tabor Center she could use until the dispute was resolved. Now, more than three years later, she's still there, awaiting the outcome of her lawsuit.

 

And watching her business sag.


"It's going real bad. This location isn't a good location," Foote said. "And there is so much confusion out there. (Press reports) make it sound like I got the money and moved out. I haven't got a penny, and business has been going down since I moved - but the worst was this year after the trial."

 

Yarmouth and Tabor Center attorney James L. Aab, of the Denver firm Aab & Botts, said his clients never tried to kick Foote out. Rather, they asked her to move because another tenant, General Nutrition Center, was willing to pay more for the shop's desirable location, as well as sign a long-term lease.

 

The jury's hefty award, Aab said, didn't fit the facts in the case.

 

"If you get the emotions out of the way, and look at the numbers and facts, it doesn't make sense," he said.

 

Foote's attorney, Darold Killmer, of the Denver-based firm of Miller, Lane, Killmer & Greisen, contended the shopping center owners "are simply revising history, and not successfully."

 

Killmer said he believes the award in the case was so large because, "It was clear discrimination, coupled with their insistent denials."

 

Although Foote said Tabor management's actions were "evil," her fight was not solely about race. Rather, she said it was about justice, prompting her to refuse a settlement that required her silence on the case and a quiet move out of the mall.

 

"I don't have bad feelings about white people," she said, noting that the jury comprised 11 whites and only one black. Most of her customers are white, she added. "I just wanted to be a business owner."

 

In April, the Colorado Civil Rights Division gave Foote its Community Builder Award for her willingness to fight.

 

"The fact that she has believed in herself, and believed the system would work for her just as well as anyone else, has inspired a number of people, undoubtedly," said spokeswoman Judy Fester. "She demonstrated dignity, and grace under fire."

 

Killmer said he felt the verdict could affect landlords throughout the state.

 

"Hopefully, verdicts like this will cause people to stop and think," he said.

 

In late June, Foote won an interim battle. Attorneys for Yarmouth Group ceased arguing that, because Yarmouth had been sold, it owed Foote nothing. The company's new owners agreed to post a $4 million bond.

 

Meanwhile, Foote said she still suffers anxiety attacks marked by a racing heart, stomach pains, sleeplessness and depression. Most weighty is the uncertainty her business continues to face.


With the lawsuit far from settled, her life and business continue in limbo. She hasn't received a dime, and once the suit is settled, she'll have to negotiate another lease with the center's new owners, Westin Hotels & Resorts. She's left not knowing how much to revest in inventory, or where or if she'll have a business.

 

Emotionally, she said, she'll never completely recover from the fear that, despite "doing everything right" with her business, she nearly lost all that she had dreamed about since childhood because of her race.

 

"The only thing that went wrong was my color," she said.

 

 

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