When I first moved to South Shore in March 2020, I was in search of a home smoke shop. One that’s close enough to walk to from my house, carried the products I preferred and — preferably — Black-owned.

A Google search turned up 3 Smokin’ Sisters Tobacco Shop on 71st and Ridgeland. My first criteria was met since it was only about a 15-minute walk from my crib.

When my girlfriend and I arrived for our introductory visit, we were excited to see that the shop met our second and third criteria. An energetic Black woman came from behind the counter and introduced herself as Renee White. Back in January 2020, she opened the smoke shop with her two sisters, Renetta White and Capri McLemore. 

After about two minutes of shopping and 15 minutes of conversation, we left with our favorite brand of rolling papers and even gave suggestions on other products she should have in stock. First impressions were glowing all around, and we felt comfortable in the fact that we’d found our home smoke shop.

Throughout the year, Renee and I kept up to date during short chats during each of my visits. When I visited her in March 2020, she told us about a disgruntled local man who tried to have them shut down. And in the first week of June, we learned that the store had been looted during the first weekend of the summer uprisings.


But entering the store on the sunny afternoon of Jan. 7, 2021, was the first time I’d get to sit down with Renee and learn the detailed story of the 3 Smokin’ Sisters Tobacco Shop. 

The smoke shop’s name, according to Renee, is accurate — just not in the way people expect it to be. “Actually none of us smoke,” she says. “But all three of us cute.” 

According to Renetta and Capri, both of whom I spoke with on the phone a couple of days after my conversation with Renee, the idea for opening a business together was originally Renee’s, but the original idea wasn’t for a tobacco shop, they say.

“We wanted it to be a medical cannabis shop,” Capri says. “It’s a lucrative business, and we planned to sell marijuana wholesale out of the same establishment.” 

While medical dispensaries have been licensed in Illinois since 2013, recreational marijuana use only became legal in the state at the start of 2020 as one of the opening acts of newly elected Gov. J.B. Pritzker. 

As of today, there are no dispensaries in Illinois where a Black person represents any significant portion of the ownership. Renee says that in 2016 she foresaw the shift to legal recreational cannabis in Illinois, and wanted to get in early. 

It would hopefully become the family business, and it would fuel Renee’s desire for advancement and personal growth in the post-retirement stage of her life. After all, for most of her life, her advancement had been challenged by racism and sexism in her professional career. Owning a business with her sisters offered a newly found freedom.

Renee began her adult life in the military, enlisting in the U.S. Army when she was 19. “I was dead set on joining even at 18, but my mom told me I wasn’t ready to follow orders from anybody like that yet,” Renee says. “When I joined a year later, I realized she was right. They’d shout orders at me and I would question them.”

She pauses, chokes up, and seems to surprise herself when tears gather at the corners of her eyes. She admits that she hadn’t realized how sensitive a subject her experience in the Army actually was to her. 

“It was the 1980’s, they didn’t really want women joining the Army. Especially not a woman like me,” she says. “I wasn’t going to just bow down. I did my job and I did it well. But if you were a woman who was good at your job, they hated you.”

The dedication and hard work she gave the Army was enough to rise up the ranks in spite of overt misogyny, but what they showed her in return was enough to make her retire from service in 1992, after a decade of duty.

“I was just going to transfer to a new facility and they refused to sign my paperwork to transfer,” she says. According to Renee, the decision not to approve her transfer seemed to be totally out of spite. “At that point it was either stay where I was for four more years, or leave.”

After leaving the Army, Renee returned home to Rockford at age 29, and soon after, moved north to Carol Stream with her sisters, who had begun careers in Chicago. Her first jobs out of the military were security guard positions at clubs in towns like Des Plaines and Harvey that she held while trying to get a foothold in a new career.

“I was considering the police force but I did some ride-alongs with CPD and Harvey PD. All that did was show me that they were just as corrupt as the military,” she says. She describes some of the abuse of civilians she witnessed like cops taking drugs from people for their own use, and lying to protect each other in police reports. “See, I wasn’t going to accept any of that. They probably would’ve shot me in the back, friendly fire.”

Then, a friend of her sister’s came to her with a job opportunity in construction. She jumped into it totally inexperienced, but was able to excel at work thanks to her physical strength. As she gained experience and skill over two decades of working, projects were thrown her way, and she was often given leadership roles on job sites. There was one caveat; she wasn’t getting paid according to her responsibilities.

“They loved putting me in charge of the crew, but they never officially promoted me to foreman,” she says. Then she got fed up. “One time I was at Ujamaa construction and a supervisor said they wanted me to be in charge of the crew and I said I’m sick and tired of this, ‘Make me a foreman!” 

She was promoted to foreman, but only that one time. Again, misogyny was derailing Renee’s career trajectory, and left her feeling stagnant. So, in 2016 Renee ended her more than 20-year career in construction.

Renee White serving a customer on Jan. 7, 2021. Photo by Alexander Gouletas // The TRiiBE

It was about a year after retirement, in 2017, that she teamed up with her sisters to open a business, cannabis shop with retail in the front and wholesale in the back. At least, that was what they’d hoped.

“At that time they were doing licenses for medical marijuana stores and we were trying to get one,” Renee says. “But the folks at the state were giving us the runaround.”

Renee says that they were misled and flat-out lied to about application availability, about requirements for application, and about dates. “At a certain point it became so blatant that I straight up asked, ‘Are you telling me the truth?,'” she says. It would take months at a time for them to get questions answered and updates on the application process only to find out that they were being misinformed. 

“They issued all these licenses to white millionaires, and they give Black people all these obstacles,” she says. “I don’t know of a single Black person who was able to get a cannabis shop license.”

Renee was once again being roadblocked by discrimination— this time because of her race. By the time they were getting their questions answered, it was over a year from when they’d initiated the process. They had already begun shifting to the much more attainable goal of opening a tobacco shop.

“We chose South Shore because it seemed to be an up-and-coming neighborhood,” she says. “The Obama Center was supposed to be being built not too far away, and there were a lot of available storefronts on 71st.”

In June 2019 they leased the property where the smoke shop is now, installed their neon sign for 3 Smokin’ Sisters and the ball was truly in motion. They stocked up on merchandise and began building up the inside of the store. They postponed opening, however, because their father was gravely ill. The White sisters lost their father in October 2019. 

When the new year came around, they were all hands on deck, and the shop finally opened up in January 2020. Nothing could’ve prepared them for the experience their first year in business would bring. It started out great, according to Renee.

"We have a lot invested here, and I hope that we can find people to help run the store and maybe even open up another location," Renee White says. Photo by Alexander Gouletas // The TRiiBE

“It was more than just running the store, it felt like we were building relationships with the community,” she says. “We would even help people out with groceries, suits, new shoes sometimes.” 

Their first setback came at the start of the pandemic. While they were able to remain open because they sold essential products such as water and toiletries, they suffered a major loss when their store was broken into and the ATM was stolen in March.

Then when a man who claimed to be a member of a local organization came into the store and disrespectfully demanded to paste a flyer in their window, her refusal led to him reporting the shop to the state. “He tried to get us shut down, but the state came and agreed that we were essential,” she says, recalling the random encounter. “Only problem is that they made us curbside-only for a while, which hurt our business.”

On May 31, at the start of the summer uprisings, the 3 Smokin’ Sisters shop was looted for $80,000 worth of merchandise. The repairs and replacements were a devastating setback. 

“What hurt the most about that was seeing some of the people we’d helped on camera, climbing through the broken window,” she says. “It made us feel a little better that people from the neighborhood came to help us clean up and everything, but at that point my sisters were ready to close up and move elsewhere.”

But Renee wasn’t ready to give up on South Shore yet. After repairing the store, they continued to add even more merchandise to their inventory and now, the once-naked walls and scarcely stocked shelves are abundant and overflowing. And, if the time I came in to interview was any indication, business is picking up well.

“We have a lot invested here, and I hope that we can find people to help run the store and maybe even open up another location,” she says. “It gets frustrating sometimes dealing with the BS, but our intentions for the community are still good.”

is a staff writer with The TRiiBE. Email him with news tips.