Left to right, Clarence Weaver and Wendy Weaver, owners of C&W Market, with Jean Murphy and Larry Murphy, owners of YoFresh Yogurt Café, created the Tour de Noir and Black Business Expo. Submitted photo

Two small businesses, African American owned, and launched essentially at the same time. A little over four years ago the owners of YoFresh Café at 635 Chicago Ave., and  C&W Market  and  Ice Cream Parlor  at 1901 Church St.,  already friendly through their associations around town and their mutual church affiliations, got together for dinner.

The couples,  Dr. Larry Murphy and Dr. Jean Murphy, owners of YoFresh, and Wendy and Clarence Weaver, owners of  C &W Market,  talked about what it means to start a small business – the need for resources,  the excitement involved, as well as the risk, “just to see how we might be mutually supportive” of each other, recalled Larry Murphy.

Then, the conversation turned to the fact that “while we were new, there were other African American/Black businesses that were also operating in town,” he added. “Rather than going it alone, the idea came up, not only should we be talking to one another, but what if all businesses talked to one another, networked, shared challenges, so forth.”

 Ms. Weaver recalled the hope was that “we could share some of our experiences with fellow business owners to help them be able to navigate or to start on their own without having to go through some of the hurdles we experienced.”

From that meeting grew the annual Tour de Noir, now in its fourth year, and Business Expo/Marketplace, begun a year later.

The events,  featuring Black-owned businesses and enterprises, are scheduled to take place this year on March 30 at the Levy Center, 300 Dodge  Ave. The theme this year:  “Small Business,  Big  Impact.”

Larry Murphy recalled he had to do some convincing when recruiting participants the first time. Approaching one longtime member of the Black community, he said, “We’re going to have a tour of black businesses.’’

“Black businesses?” The man said. “Are you talking about Hecky’s? That’s the only Black business in town.”

“No, that is not the case,” Dr. Murphy lightly demurred. The group’s initial research showed well over 100 black businesses, he said. Broadening the criteria to include home-based businesses and those on the Internet, the total grew to 180, he said.

Black-owned businesses go back a long time in Evanston though it is not a matter of public knowledge, Larry Murphy said.  “We know African American entrepreneurship goes back to the turn of the 20th century, with the formation of the Better Cab Company, Henry Butler and his livery service, Mr. Twiggs with his printing business.”

All businesses face the challenge of resources, Larry Murphy said. “But African American businesses are particularly challenged in that regard; for one thing, because of the nature of our history and our positioning in the social landscape.”

Typically, Black-launched ventures do not have “the  background of family resources or intergenerational growth other groups have been able to draw upon,”  he said.

“You need resources to sustain you through those first two or three years when you’re getting established and becoming economically sustaining,” he said. “African American businesses, in particular, have found that a particular challenge.”

The tour, open to the public, “gives visual impact” of the Black presence in the local business community, he said. “It is one thing to say there are businesses, but to drive around and see them, it’s “Wow, there really is a business on Orrington. There really is a business in this shopping plaza here [YoFresh]. So, for people to be able to see it first-hand is different than just hearing it, reading about it on line.”

This year, the sponsors hope to add a bus specifically for youth, said Ms. Weaver, including the middle-schoolers who take part in the Officer and Gentlemen Academy mentorship program that the Evanston Police Department holds for middle-schoolers. The youth bus, besides making stops at Black businesses, may just “have to creep over to Northwestern University to show them what the campus looks like over there,” Ms. Weaver hinted.

One of the awards given at the Expo goes to a young entrepreneur, she said. “And so we will continue to do that, to encourage our young people: ‘If you have an idea, hey go with it, come to us, we can help you.’”

The tour and Expo are open to all and in fact the events have drawn a very diverse group, racially and demographically, in the past, Larry Murphy said. He said public officials such as Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin, State Representative Robyn Gabel and some City aldermen have been among those taking part in the event. “We’re glad for that,” he said. “This is geared toward Evanston and the North Shore. We want to be seen as an integral part of the community life of Evanston and the North Shore.”

The cost for the tour and expo is $20  together; for the expo separately the cost is $8. Tour information may be obtained at www.blackbizevanston-ns.org.

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.