Julius Tillery is proud of his family’s history and his heritage of Black farmers in Northampton County, but he’s much more focused on the future than the past. He sees his company Black Cotton as a way to revamp the image often associated with Black Americans and cotton. That’s not to say the history of slaves picking cotton is no longer relevant, or that there’s not a history of Black American’s picking someone else’s cotton for low wages. That history matters, but Tillery is building on his family’s unique story in hopes of creating a new narrative.
“So many stories of cotton have always been sad, but we’re trying to change the game,” Tillery said. “I want people to connect to that – something good.”
Through Black Cotton, Tillery and his operations manager Jamaal Garner sell home décor, jewelry and accessories made out of cotton that they grow. Customers can by directly through the online shop at blackcotton.us. It’s figuratively a long way from where his family’s cotton growing began, but literally it’s on the same land that his great-great grandfather bought after the end of slavery.
That great-great grandfather was D.L. Tillery. He was born in 1871 in the area of Halifax County that eventually became known as Tillery. He was the first person in the family who was born free after the end of slavery. Eventually, he bought farmland about 15 miles east, on the other side of the Roanoke River in the Rich Square area of Northampton County. The currently living Julius Tillery was named after D.L. Tillery’s son named Julius.
“We know what poor farming looks like,” Tillery said. “We want to operate in a profit margin that would make our ancestors proud. People spend their money on what they want, and we want them to spend it on us.”
The direct-to-consumer model is proving to be a game-changer for Tillery. He grew up working with his father and grandfather on the farm and wanted to take some responsibility for how to make money on his own. So several years after graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill with an economics degree, he founded Black Cotton in 2016.
“I always knew eventually I would be responsible for the farm, but economics was always an interest.” Tillery said. “I knew farming was tough, and if i could get the best education I could get maybe it’d be a little easier for me.”
His childhood friend Garner has been a major part of launching and running the business. He grew up helping family with hogs, corn, potatoes and other produce, but his immediate family didn’t farm. So to see Black Cotton grow and set an example for others has been a rewarding experience for him.
“I got a call [from Julius] to get some cotton out of the field because he had an idea to do something different,” Garner said. “It hasn’t stopped. It just went from one thing to the next. It’s gone from seed to actual product.”
Garner thinks it’s amazing to see the idea grow, to see Black Cotton in people’s homes and to see people giving the company some positive attention. He and Tillery call Black cotton “the new rose” – a reference to the beauty and value associated with Roses. Changing the perception of Black people involved in cotton is also about giving their children and their community something to be proud of. Garner has a nine-year-old daughter and four sons ranging in age from 1 to 13 years old. Tillery has a new son who’s just three months old.
“With the history behind it, people tend to want to get away from cotton,” Garner said. “But we have a goal to change our children’s lives, so they can change their children’s lives. It’s nice to know something is happening because we’re putting in the work.”
Black Cotton has had customers from 40 different states, and it continues to get more and more of a following on social media. Tillery said it’s been the best way for the company to network and build a brand showing people why they do what they do. He still hopes to grow more and be highlighted in more stores.
We hope to be what Levi’s is for California,” Tillery said. “In northeastern North Carolina, we’re known for disinvestment, and we want to be able to change that and help the community.”
It’s not all business for Tillery though. He’s committed to being part of the community, including the agricultural community that he believes brings so much value to the state. He is on the staff of the nonprofit organization Black Family Land Trust as the N.C. State Coordinator, and Gov. Cooper appointed him to the N.C. Forestry Advisory Council. He’s on the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Administrative Council, the N.C. Farm Bureau Young Farmers and Ranchers Committee and a local charter school’s board.
“Our state has done a lot to serve people through agriculture, and I want to be part of that – serving my community through agriculture,” Tillery said.
He sees agriculture as a way to lift the state’s economy and to build bridges – an opportunity for local and state leaders to come together on ways to make life the best it can be in North Carolina.
“For example, I’m supporting Black agriculture, but you don’t have to be Black to support us,” Tillery said. “I see farming as a lifetime thing, and I want to be part of good change.”