Julius Tillery, a Black entrepreneur who believes there is a future for Black people, wants to erase the stigma associated with cotton farming with his Northampton County farming initiative, Black cotton.
For the average Black person in the United States, cotton farming, which otherwise is a very lucrative business, brings to mind the sad history of slavery and sharecroppers who were cheated out of their wages while their manpower helped to build America’s colonial economy.
“Everybody has their history, but we’re talking about our present,” Tillery told News & Record. “If you want to talk about present, we’re presenting a beautiful, modern switch to a crop we’ve raised.”
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Per History.com, enslaved people from the South were the largest producers of the world’s cotton, totaling about 75% of the global production at the time and this mass production accelerated slavery in America.
“Where [cotton] flourished, in the states of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, the slave population increased by an average of 27.5 percent per decade, demanding that entire families be relocated from plantations in the east and upper south.”
Tillery and his brand Black Cotton are now working assiduously to make cotton farming cool. Coming from a family of cotton farmers and a fifth-generation farmer to be precise, Tillery grows cotton for art and decor and he intends to work the fields till he dies.
His great-great-grandfather was the first in the family to be born free in 1871 in Halifax County, North Carolina, and the tradition of farming the crop has remained in the family since that time. His family’s cotton farm is one of the largest producers of the crop in his county.
Tillery’s Black Cotton is currently venturing into amazing home décor, jewelry and art with the crop regardless of the negative connotations ascribed to farming the white cloudlike fluffy producing plants.
Black Cotton was founded in 2016. According to its website, it “centers and uplifts the Black community closest to the cotton fields in Northampton County, North Carolina” by creating “genuine and distinguished home decor that we cultivate and care for.”
Tillery, who used his family farm to create his cotton business, intends to form and be a part of the “new economy and pride” for people in his rural poor community in Northeast NC.
“Thought the best way to make a change was to start with the asset my community has that I participate in every year in producing,” the young entrepreneur said. “I wanted to give cotton a different value.”
“The cotton business is a very tough business — not much money in it. I wanted to come up with a creative solution to that,” he added.
Tillery is the North Carolina coordinator for Black Family Land Trust. The trust wants to preserve and protect land owned by historically underserved communities. He intends to empower the Black community with his company by giving them a chance to write their new history with the plant, blocking out all negativity ascribed to it.
“What we’re doing is something special,” Black Cotton operation manager Jamal Garner said. “We’re taking our own crop and turning it into something unique and trying to make a difference in this rural area we’re from.”