Keisha Robinson, owner of the vegan bakery Lilipad, measures ingredients for icing into her mixer at her home on Aug. 27. Robinson, who also works full-time at Fort Bliss, has loved cooking and baking since she was a child. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

In 2004, August was nationally recognized as Black Business Month after historian John William Timpleton and engineer Frederick E. Jordan Sr. led an effort to raise awareness about Black-owned businesses and their contributions to the country’s economy. 

But it wasn’t until two years ago that El Paso officially recognized the months-long celebration, which came after local businesswoman and publisher Monica Tucker created a proclamation that was signed by then Mayor Dee Margo.

“We want to let it be known that we are here, we are truly here,” Tucker said. 

The month was intended for all people to support the millions of Black businesses that exist in the United States, according to a Forbes article.

Tucker, who is originally from Aurora, Illinois, is a founder and publisher of Black El Paso Voice, a newspaper and online site that promotes Black businesses in the community and provides an outlet for readers to discuss the Black experience in El Paso. 

Monica Tucker in her office on Aug. 28. Tucker is the founder of the online publication Black El Paso Voices and works to educate the public on Black history and culture. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

“We really have no idea how many Black owned businesses are here in El Paso,” Tucker said. 

“The main thing is information sharing with people who are Black and for those who want to support Black people, Black initiatives, Black organizations. Anyone who provides a service or product can submit their information for free and it’ll be online.” 

Originally started in 1998 as Black El Paso, Black El Paso Voices began as a newsletter that was printed and shared by word of mouth. In 2006, the paper transitioned online and in 2018 the paper’s name changed to Black El Paso Voice. 

“The Black El Paso Voice exists to show people that we do have a voice and no, we’re not just all about combating racism,” Tucker said. “We want to show people who we are. We want to highlight the kids, the adults, people who are doing things in the community. We want to show people we’re not just celebrating being Black during Black History Month or Juneteenth. We have substance.”

Tucker said the importance of the month dates back to the history and destruction of Black businesses in the early 1900s, most notably the burning of “Black Wall Street.”

In the early 1920s, the Greenwood district in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was considered the “wealthiest Black enclave in the nation,” according to a History Channel documentary. The 35 square blocks that included schools, businesses, churches and homes were burned by a white mob in May 1921 and resulted in the deaths of over 300 people. While a specific value of the community is unknown, it is estimated in today’s dollar value that over $27 million worth of damages occurred. 

“Our ancestors fought for this right for us to continue to succeed by owning a business,” Tucker said. “It’s important because it brings recognition not just to celebrate a day that, ‘Oh, there are Black people with businesses,’ but it’s a memory of remembrance of what our ancestors had to go through just so that we could own a business and make a living for ourselves and leave a legacy for our children.”

As someone who has lived in El Paso for over 25 years, she said she knows the Black community exists.

“There’s no reason why people should drive around in El Paso and not know that Black people are here too,” Tucker said. “There’s no reason that somebody should get off the plane in El Paso and not see the Black culture here. We have an impact in the city and we have history here.”

This month, the newspaper has highlighted businesses that specialize in health, travel planning, comics, clothing and more. 

“The first thing people think of and ask if you have a business is, ‘Do you do hair? Do you have a restaurant or something like that?’ That’s it. And I’m like, ’Wait a minute, we do so much more’,” Tucker said. “And that’s why the Black pages are important so people can see, this is who we are.” 

Lillipad, a vegan and gluten free bakery, is among the featured businesses this month.

Founder Keisha Robinson started the business after learning she and her niece were allergic to dairy products and had difficulty finding baked goods they could eat. She began her business 10 years after being diagnosed. 

Keisha Robinson poses in front of a wall of cookie cutters in the vegan bakery she operates from her home. Robinson, who has another full-time job, initially started vegan baking to provide treats for herself and her niece, who both have food allergies. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

“It was a lot of trial and error and figuring it out on my own,” Robinson said. “I had to tweak a lot of the original recipes I knew.”

From rice crispy treats to birthday cakes, Robinson said some of her ingredients include chickpea icing, plant based butter and oatmeal. She also said that she tries to be as environmentally friendly as possible and uses containers that are constructed from recycled water bottles. 

“Since I was little, I would always end up in a home ed class or making something,” Robinson said. “A lot of people in the family can cook or bake, or do both, so it’s just been in the blood line.” 

Robinson said she was unaware that August was Black Business Month but was happy to learn that the recognition existed for businesses like hers and others. 

“You don’t hear about it. You don’t read about it. So I had no clue until my friend was like, ‘Hey!’” Robinson said. “We kind of just live in the shadows.”

As a city with one of the highest rates of diabetes in the state, Robinson said that her business has especially helped those with the disease. 

“It feels amazing. You feel really good and it’s amazing to know that I’ve made their day special,” she said. 

Robinson said it can be difficult to persuade non-vegans to try Lillipad. 

“It’s been a challenge because people consider vegan or gluten free to be nasty or that the texture is off or wrong,” Robinson said.

Although working out of her home, Robinson has over 1,000 followers on Instagram and receives constant commissions. She said she hopes to open a shop of her own. 

Meanwhile, Tucker said starting next month, Black El Paso Voice will be offering a print version that will include additional articles from community writers. The printed paper will be available monthly and the website will update weekly. 

She also is working to develop what she called the Black Roundtable, a physical space for Black locals to discuss topics that include education, criminal justice and mental health. The group will meet monthly via Zoom.

Looking ahead, Tucker said she hopes Black culture is more visible in El Paso.

“The thing that I can see is more Black people actually wanting to come to this part of Texas, rather than just Dallas and Houston and San Antonio,” Tucker said. “I want Black people to know that we’re better together and I want other people to know that, at the same time, we’re all better together.”

Cover photo: Keisha Robinson, owner of the vegan bakery Lilipad, measures ingredients for icing into her mixer at her home on Aug. 27. Robinson, who also works full-time at Fort Bliss, has loved cooking and baking since she was a child. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Jewél Jackson covers higher education for El Paso Matters, through a partnership with Open Campus Media. She is a 2020 graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.