Cotton is Our Culture: Meet the Man Who’s Changing the Narrative for Black Farmers

Cotton is Our Culture: Meet the Man Who’s Changing the Narrative for Black Farmers

August 12, 2021 0

Farming runs in Julius Tillery’s DNA. The thirty-something-year-old farmer turned entrepreneur turned advocate is a fifth-generation farmer in North Carolina who’s set on preserving the culture of agriculture among Black Americans. Tillery sheds light on the dwindling number of Black farmers in America while also celebrating the culture of cotton through his brand Black Cotton. 

Today, Tillery works alongside his grandfather and father on the family’s soybean and cotton farm located in Northampton County, North Carolina. Tillery and his family are 3 of the 45,000 Black farmers in the country, which is a low number compared to the nearly 1 million Black farmers who operated in 1920

There’s been an outcry from Black agriculturists who have been mistreated by unfair practices put in place by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for decades. Even despite the USDA being called out for its un actions in 1965, the department has failed to address racial discrimination properly. Unfortunately, Black farmers have had to pay the price. 

“No one created opportunities in cotton for us, so we have to make value of it,” said Tillery, referring to his home decor and accessories brand Black Cotton

Founded in 2016, Black Cotton celebrates a plant that is historically associated with the pain and toils African Americans experienced during slavery. The brand’s tagline, “Cotton is our culture,” says it all. Tillery is finding a way to beautify a plant with a complicated history by creating and selling thoughtfully designed vases, wreaths, shirts, and other decor pieces through Black Cotton.  Tillery has found that he’s not the only one looking for a positive way to connect with the crop of the South, however. Thanks to agritourism, people from all around the country have traveled to visit the family farm and Tillery’s office. 

“I’ve had school groups, fashion folks, and people attending family reunions want to see my office,” he told Carolina County. “They want to create things and find their healing in the cotton.”

Still, without the help of advocates like himself, Tillery and other Black farmers around the country will continue to hold on by a thread. The biggest civil rights settlement in U.S. history was won in 2010 by attorney Greg Francis, and since then there’s been a 9% increase in Black-owned farms. The settlement granted 33,000 Black farmers payments of $50,000. This win was certainly a step in the right direction for Black farmers, but economic hardships brought on by the pandemic have resulted in major losses for farmers everywhere. 

As a member of The Conservation Fund’s Resourceful Communities program, Tillery makes sure the voices of Black farmers are front and center. When he’s not busy advocating on committees and councils, Tillery gives back his knowledge of agriculture as a teacher at Roanoke-Chowan Community College. Julius Tillery is on a mission to help get Black farmers ahead in a complex industry that’s built against them. The process will be undoubtedly long and challenging, but Tillery is set on “beautifying” the opportunities and value that agriculture offers for Black Americans. 

Reese Williams