The two young men squint into the camera and smile from beneath their baseball caps.
Behind them, the cotton field sprawls into the distance, meeting the line of trees bordering the acreage in Northampton County in northeastern North Carolina.
The field is green, as a passerby might expect, but atop the green floats a soft, buoyant layer of white puffs.
Julius Tillery, standing shoulder to shoulder with his childhood friend, Jamaal Garner, snaps a selfie on the first day of the harvest in 2016.
Black Cotton was born.
Family of farmers
Tillery started his company, Black Cotton, to make the cotton he harvests into home decor, art and jewelry. But cotton has always had its roots in the land Tillery lives on.
Tillery represents the fifth generation of his family to farm land in North Carolina. His great-great grandfather was the first in the family to be born free in 1871 in Halifax County. Tillery works alongside his father, James Tillery Jr., today.
As a child, his father and grandfather showed Tillery how to grow cotton, corn and peanuts until he graduated from high school. Then, he attended UNC-Chapel Hill and graduated in 2008 with a degree in economics.
As an aspiring business owner, economics was a logical choice for Tillery. But Black Cotton wouldn’t be invented for another eight years. Instead, the choice to pursue economics was more personal.
On Tillery’s Facebook page, right under his photo, a man named Edward B. Farley is quoted: "Successful people do the things unsuccessful people are not willing to do."
Farley is not a Wall Street businessman, a slick-haired “30 under 30” or a laureate economics professor. He was a friend of Tillery’s father and a public school teacher in Virginia. But to Tillery, he was like a grandfather and mentor.
In an Instagram post honoring Farley’s death in 2019, Tillery said Farley pushed him to “be well read and think fast.” Farley received an economics degree when he was at Virginia State College and Tillery was inspired to do the same at UNC-CH.
During the week, Tillery went to class. On weekends, he wasn’t studying at coffee shops on Franklin Street or hanging out in his dorm. Tillery said he was “one of those kids” who went home most weekends.
Even while at Carolina, he knew he wanted to bring everything he learned in class back to his farm.
“I wanted to give cotton a different value,” Tillery said. “The cotton business is a very tough business — not much money in it. I wanted to come up with a creative solution to that.”
At first, Tillery wasn’t sure how we would turn his farm into a sustainable business. But he knew who could help him figure that out.
“I called up my buddy, Jamaal,” Tillery said.
Tillery and Garner grew up together in Northampton County. When Tillery went to Chapel Hill in 2004, Garner enlisted in the Marine Corps. For nearly a decade, the two were apart until an idea brought them back together.
Tillery brought Garner on as operations manager, and they created Black Cotton together, starting by just picking some raw cotton and putting it in mason jars as his first decor arrangements.
“We didn’t know what it was going to turn into,” Tillery said. “But we knew we had some cotton.”
“He had a vision, and I saw it,” Garner said. “I liked it from Day 1.”
Flipping the narrative
Four years after its founding, Black Cotton sells and ships wreaths, table centerpieces, apparel and even raw cotton across the country and the world.
Black Cotton flips the narrative, writing Black farmers and entrepreneurs like Tillery into the center of a story that uplifts Black farmers in a way history never did.
By the 1860s, the South was producing 75% of the world’s cotton. Even in the early 1800s, half of all U.S. exports were cotton. Yet, at the center of that economic boon were the millions of enslaved Black people who suffered at the expense of that profit.
Tillery knows exactly what he’s doing. He knows some may listen to his story with a raised eyebrow or crinkled forehead. But his gaze is forward and unfaltering, seeing something life-giving in a crop that devastated his ancestors.
“Everybody has their history, but we’re talking about our present,” Tillery said. “If you want to talk about present, we’re presenting a beautiful, modern switch to a crop we’ve raised.”
On Tillery’s land, he and his team are the sole authority.
“Somebody can’t tell me, ‘you don’t know anything about cotton,’” Tillery said. “But we bring the cotton to you. Do you know anything about this cotton?”
Tillery said he’s using Black Cotton to empower Black farmers and rural communities, whether it’s by educating visitors on farm tours or offering the landscape to minority artists who create photography and short films.
Tillery said a Black rapper filmed a music video on his fields. While there, the artist asked to say a prayer.
As the man prayed, he cried. He then told Tillery something that he’ll never forget.
“He said this was the freest he’s ever been walking as a Black man,” Tillery said.
This was land that belonged completely and freely to Tillery and the musician as young Black men, a freedom their ancestors never knew.
On another tour, Tillery said some visitors ran up and down the tilled rows, saying “there’s no limit to what we can do right now.”
“I want that same type of free mentality in our Black community,” Tillery said.
Traver Riggins, who lives in California, said she discovered Black Cotton a year ago on the internet after seeing cotton presented at an annual produce festival.
Riggins said she loves cotton as a textile, but felt that Black Americans and the centuries of racism and pain in cotton’s roots were not represented.
So, that same day, she went home and spent hours researching Black farmers in the cotton industry. Not expecting to find any, she stumbled upon Tillery’s Instagram.
Riggins said that Tillery’s business addresses the raw wound that is cotton in American history and aims to treat it with care. Tillery regrows what was ripped from the roots and sold by those who knew its value only by how rich it could make them.
“Hopefully, he'll heal a little bit of all the aches and sorrow around it,” Riggins said.
Herbert Brown Jr. is also a fifth-generation Black farmer. His 112-year-old farm, Browntown Farms in Virginia, lies an hour north of Northampton County.
One day, as he was packaging a strawberry crop, Brown heard about Tillery and Black Cotton on the radio. He was struck by the interview because he knows how small the community of young, Black farmers is.
Brown visited Tillery and the two became friends, sharing resources with each other and bonding over shared experiences and challenges as Black farmers in rural America.
Brown said it’s important to have someone he can relate to, especially when the work gets tough or the rains become unpredictable. But, like Tillery, he said he loves what he does.
“It’s been a long road,” Brown said. “It’s in my roots. It’s in my blood. It’s in my history. Home will be the place that I can make the most impact and make a difference in people's lives.”
Preserve and protect
Tillery said he not only wants to support other farmers like him, but educate the community about where their produce comes from and who’s cultivating it.
Besides running his business, Tillery is the North Carolina state coordinator for Black Family Land Trust, an organization dedicated to preserving and protecting land owned by historically underserved communities.
“What we’re doing is something special,” 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.”
Brown said Tillery is bringing a new perspective, not just to cotton but to rural areas. He said when he’s the only minority farmer at a market or in a feed store, he knows he sticks out. But he takes that as an opportunity to show what rural America really looks like.
“People say, ‘You don’t look like a farmer,’” Brown said. “And I say, ‘Well, what is a farmer supposed to look like?’”
For Brown, Tillery and Garner, farming is a passion that also has the power to inspire. For anyone who, like them, had a dream, Tillery has simple advice.
“To quote the prophet, Quavo, from Migos: ‘Walk it how you talk it.’”
At UNC Media Hub, students are hand-picked from various concentrations in the UNC School of Media and Journalism to work together to find, produce and market stories with state, regional and at times, national appeal.