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Black farmer looks to rethink stigma of picking cotton

Kelli Merrick/500px/Getty Images

(NEW YORK) — Old images of African Americans picking cotton remind many of the oppression suffered by generations of Black slaves before the Emancipation Proclamation. For Black Americans in particular, their history with this famous crop, that helps clothe the world, is complicated.

Now Julius Tillery, a Black cotton farmer in North Carolina, is working to turn cotton’s painful story with Black Americans into an affirmation of the economic progress that his community has achieved over the years.

“If I don’t create a new history for us, it will always be a bad history,” Tillery told ABC News. “So I think it’s really important that the work I do to help and foster a better idea around cotton is important. We have to remember, cotton wasn’t the oppressive thing. Cotton is just a plant, and it’s a magical plant at that. It was people that were oppressive and made us work like machines.”

Tillery owns several hundred acres of farmland and has been teaching other farmers how to survive in a global economy.

The 37-year-old said it is important for him to see the Black farming community grow.

“It’s not many of us. We’re basically… extinct,” he said. “It’s less than 100 Black cotton farmers in the whole country.”

Outside of his advocacy, Tillery started a side business, Black Cotton, in 2016. He promotes other cotton farmers across the South. The business has created and sold home décor, jewelry, and accessories handmade with cotton. The tagline for the company is: Cotton is Our Culture. Let’s Grow Together.

The company also has partnered with shoemaker and clothing line Vans, which purchased 10,000 pounds of cotton from Black Cotton two years ago. Vans produces streetwear, including a T-shirt with a cotton flower logo that uses cotton from the company.

Vans said it plans to buy more cotton from Black Cotton this year.

Tillery said that he sometimes gets remarks from people who wonder how, as a Black man, he could be a cotton farmer. He said that he sees his work as a way for the community to grow.

“I’m a fifth-generation cotton farmer, and I emphasize that because that means five generations of free men decided to do this work,” he said.

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