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Thirty miles southeast of Roanoke Rapids, across a flat expanse of Northampton County that produces cotton, soybeans, and a little remaining tobacco, is the tiny majority-Black town of Rich Square,

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Thirty miles southeast of Roanoke Rapids, across a flat expanse of Northampton County that produces cotton, soybeans, and a little remaining tobacco, is the tiny majority-Black town of Rich Square,

Rewriting the Story of Cotton

Thirty miles southeast of Roanoke Rapids, across a flat expanse of Northampton County that produces cotton, soybeans, and a little remaining tobacco, is the tiny majority-Black town of Rich Square, named for its fertile farmland. Julius Tillery’s family has tilled this part of the Roanoke Valley for more than a hundred years.

“There’s no outrunning your roots,” the 36-year-old cotton farmer says, standing beneath an eastern red cedar surrounded by graves of his ancestors. One of them, his great-great-grandfather, the Rev. D.L. Tillery, was born in 1871, the first child in the family to live his entire life free. In the early 1900s, he bought the first portion of this land, which now grows 75 acres of soybeans and 50 acres of cotton. Julius waves his hand toward a path that cuts across the field. “From that tree line to this tree line right here,” he says, “that’s the first of our family farms.” He looks back down at his great-great-grandfather’s gravestone. “His parents were slaves,” Julius says, then nods to two other markers: “That’s his wife, Ellen, and that’s his sister, Mary.”

Black Cotton founder Julius Tillery (right) and operations manager Jamaal Garner are exploding stereotypes of cotton farming in eastern North Carolina. photograph by Andrew Kornylak

Julius comes from a long line of cotton farmers, and he has dedicated his life to preserving this agricultural tradition so laden with knotty roots. In 2016, he started Black Cotton, a company that takes the crops that he grows in this part of northeastern North Carolina and turns them into intricately designed art: puffy white wreaths, tree ornaments, arrangements, totes, and other decorative items and accessories. But Julius’s mission is much bigger than creating home decor: He aims to free cotton from its associations with a troublesome past.

Depending on who you are and where you’re from, cotton can come with some heavy baggage. Many Black Americans see the crop as an emblem of a painful history: slavery and, later, predatory sharecropping situations. Julius wants Black people to see pride in this traditional Southern crop and admiration for the Black farmers who’ve produced it over the past 100-plus years. Nowadays, he says, “We value being highly educated, and we think these country folks weren’t doing much. But look how much they bought and how much they got with the education that they had and the things that they did. These Black people were so resilient.”

When Julius isn’t coming up with creative solutions for Black Cotton’s production and marketing, he advocates for North Carolina agriculture. In the past, he’s served as the farm resources coordinator for The Conservation Fund, as well as the North Carolina coordinator for The Black Family Land Trust, which helps historically underserved landowners retain and maintain their legacies. “Family farms,” Julius says, shaking his head. “There’s nothing more complicated.” Some landowners, he explains, see their farms only in terms of their monetary worth; others see them as homesteads where old-timers can live out their days until they die.

At their headquarters in Garysburg, Julius and Jamaal devise marketing plans for their products. photograph by Andrew Kornylak

But Black-owned farms have tremendous symbolic value. After all, it wasn’t until 1865 — just six years before Julius’s great-great-grandfather was born — that Black people were even theoretically allowed to own land. And even in recent years, of the more than 46,000 farms in North Carolina, only three percent are owned by Black producers, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2021, for his efforts in supporting and empowering his local agricultural community, Julius was bestowed with North Carolina State University’s William C. Friday Award.

Julius walks across the road that runs through his family’s patchwork of land. Wearing a farmer’s outfit of blue jeans, brown boots, and a white T-shirt, he nods to a big green combine parked in the field. “That’s my John Deere right there,” he says proudly. He stops at the edge of the field and turns around: “Some bolls out here,” he promises, and, sure enough, cotton plants punctuate the ocean of green that stretches all the way to the timberline. A couple of bolls are already open, little puffs of white fiber pushing through brown hulls. It’s still early in the season, and Julius’s plants are exceeding expectations. “This is going to be a good cotton crop,” he says, bending down to count the white blooms around him. He smiles. “I think it’s going to be an outstanding year.”

• • •

The telltale scent of cotton is potent well before evidence of the crop is visible. Its musky perfume of ancient moss and dirt spills into the hallways of a former elementary school building in Garysburg, about 20 miles north of the Tillery family farm. In classroom after classroom, shoulder-high drifts of fluffy white bolls, still attached to their husks and stalks, are piled up and waiting to be turned into art. This one-time school building is now the town’s community center, where Black Cotton’s headquarters shares space with the local public library and farmers market.

Inside one of the rooms, Jamaal Garner, Julius’s childhood friend and Black Cotton’s operations manager, strolls from one pile to the next, breaking down the cotton bolls and separating out the seeds. Once the seeds are removed, he can begin designing one of the wreaths that the company makes and ships to customers as far away as Seattle. For products like these, the bolls are harvested and cleaned by hand. It’s a meditative process, and for the wreath that Jamaal is making, he carefully arranges the husks around the edges until he likes the way it looks.

Julius began to wonder if the rural world as he knew it might become extinct in his lifetime.

When Julius and Jamaal were kids, they were taught that they’d have to leave Northampton County if they wanted to become somebody. Jamaal enlisted in the Marines and traveled the world. Julius went off to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to study economics and entrepreneurship. While they were away, many of the Black cotton farmers they’d known growing up chose to stop planting. Costs were mounting. The farmers needed help. But younger generations weren’t sticking around small towns like Garysburg to learn and carry on the trade. Julius began to wonder if the rural world as he once knew it might become extinct in his lifetime. He was faced with a choice. “I could have gone into banking or something, but I wanted to do something to grow my family’s legacy,” he says. “What’s the point of having a nice job and living somewhere like Durham with a middle-class lifestyle when your farm is on the line?” Julius decided to come back home in 2016 and help revitalize his agricultural lineage. “I told my dad, ‘If we don’t create something worth keeping this farm for, it’s going to be lost.’”

Black Cotton is a remarkable endeavor in a town that doesn’t have much else to offer: no franchise restaurants, no major grocery stores, few gas stations, and only one Dollar General along the mile-and-a-half stretch of U.S. Highway 301 that cuts through Garysburg. With few groceries for residents to buy, the community is a food desert, something that Julius and other farmers have improved by creating the area’s first farmers market. He also frequently hires locals to help Black Cotton harvest its crops and pack orders. And Julius pays his employees living wages in order to give younger people a blueprint that they can use to start their own businesses here. Julius worries that if companies don’t invest in this majority-Black town and county, young people will continue to flee the area in search of better opportunities. “We believe in this stuff,” he says, “and we want to show people that it’s something worth believing in.”

• • •

Julius hopes to continue recruiting new believers — young people like Clarence “Shawn” Bell. He’s the great-great-grandson of Sumner Fairfield Bell, who, in 1923, founded a cotton gin six miles south of Garysburg in Occoneechee Neck. The Bell Cotton Gin is one of the oldest Black-owned gins in Northampton County, and it was part of a community of Bells that also consisted of a family homeplace and a family-run country store. But the machinery ground to a halt in 2014, when Thomas Bell Jr., who’d run the gin for half a century, took sick. He died in 2017, and a couple of years later, Shawn stepped in.

After earning his degree in manufacturing from North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University in Greensboro, Shawn went off to cotton ginning school in Stoneville, Mississippi, to prepare himself to revive his family’s business. “I’ve always been around it my whole life,” Shawn said in a 2021 episode of the Land Ethics podcast, which was sponsored by The Black Family Land Trust and hosted by Julius. “Cotton is history,” Shawn said. “Cotton is a way of life.”

In addition to cotton-and-husk wreaths, Black Cotton carries numerous other decorative items including cotton vases and husk baskets. photograph by Andrew Kornylak

Julius sees Shawn’s worldview and commitment to reopening his family’s gin as another critical step in revitalizing Black cotton farming in Northampton County. “He’s a young guy, and he’s trying to come into this game,” Julius says as he steps inside the huge building that houses the gin’s dusty, faded green machinery and massive ductwork. “I be telling people that this cotton thing, it’s generational. You can’t just get up and buy a cotton gin. This right here?” — he points up at the gin’s two-suction system near the ceiling — “it’s more than just infrastructure. It’s also the relationship with cotton growers. You’ve got to have workers who know this stuff. If families around you aren’t in this, you aren’t in this.”

When Julius looks at young people like Shawn, the gears in his head begin turning. He sees opportunity. “Shawn’s already figuring out that he wants to have high-quality-grade bales for clothing production,” Julius says. Which means that when Shawn gets his ginner’s license and reopens this place for business, Julius and Jamaal will be able to bring their cotton here to separate the fibers from the seeds. And with that pivotal piece in place, Black Cotton can advance from creating home decor to manufacturing textiles. From there, who knows? Julius’s ultimate dream for Black Cotton extends well beyond his family’s patchwork of farmland and the old school building that serves as the company’s current headquarters. He would like to see a network of Black-owned agricultural businesses working symbiotically, creating jobs for young Black farmers and preserving a rich tradition begun by men like his great-great-grandfather.

Julius (left) and Jamaal walk the farmland that’s been in Julius’s family for more than a century. photograph by Andrew Kornylak

Back at the family farm, Julius walks from one patch of land to the next. “This is my dad’s stuff, and this is my granddaddy’s stuff,” he says. The Tillery land, he explains, has been used to grow everything from soybeans to peanuts, but cotton will always be closest to Julius’s heart, and it’s the only crop grown on his portion of the acreage.

Sometimes, Julius says, he brings school kids on field trips to this part of his land and regales them with stories about how, on clear nights, he can see stars much more vividly than he could if he were in a big city like Raleigh or Durham. This land is like his own private planetarium. “What’s fascinating to me is to see the children run,” he says. “They just run — there’s a feeling of freedom. Some kids, they come from urban areas, and they don’t even know the feeling of running around a Black-owned farm, of not having to wonder what white people are going to say or do.” He hopes that when his own son, Acre Dakota, is older, he’ll see the value in this land, too, and understand why his dad loves it so much.

Julius reaches out a hand and caresses the mottled green leaves of one of his cotton plants, and a light rain begins to fall. “This is my spot right here,” he says. “This is like my favorite place on the planet.”

For more information, visit blackcotton.us.

This story was published on Jun 27, 2022

Latria Graham

Latria Graham is a fifth-generation farmer and writer based in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Her work has appeared in espnW, The Guardian, and other outlets.