The post that follows is the second contribution from our friend Ivan McClellan. If you missed the first one, you can check it out here. Ivan is a photographer and storyteller who’s focused on sharing stories, characters, and experiences of black cowboys and cowgirls. You can (and we hope you will) follow him here. We’re proud to partner with Ivan to bring you this look at Julius Tillery and Jamaal Garner of BlackCotton. We look forward to sharing more stories from Ivan in the months ahead. Walk Taller, y’all.
"Cotton is the new rose." That's how BlackCotton founder Julius Tillery describes his product. Known as the Puff Daddy of cotton, Julius is remixing the industry. He is a fifth-generation farmer taking this tradition passed down from his great-great-grandfather Reverend DL Tillery and elevating it with innovative home decor, art, jewelry, and social media savvy. Julius works the 125-acre family farm in rural North Carolina with his father, James, growing soybeans, peanuts, and cotton. Julius aims to change narratives about cotton as a poor man's crop strongly associated with slavery. "Cotton is our culture. Most places where cotton is grown are impoverished, so we're turning it into something valuable."
Though Julius grew up around cotton, he didn't fully embrace it as a career until after graduating from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill with a degree in economics and entrepreneurship. He worked a few jobs in farming and saw small farmers struggling to compete against big industrial agriculture. Julius returned home in 2016 and started BlackCotton with the vision of keeping his family farm sustainable and independent. He knew he needed a right-hand man, and so he reached out to his childhood friend Jamaal Garner. A recently retired Marine, Jamaal took the role of operations manager in charge of production flow. They needed a product to sell, and turning their crop into textiles was labor-intensive and expensive. They picked some raw cotton bulbs, put them in a mason jar, and sold it as their first product. Today BlackCotton ships apparel, wreaths, table centerpieces, and raw cotton around the world. Another part of their business is agritourism, giving tours of their farm to visitors from as far as New York and California.
Together they have ambitions to expand their business beyond home decor to create cotton textiles and provide fabric to fashion brands. One key to this is to get a cotton gin up and running. "There's an intimate relationship with a farmer and a cotton gin. It's the first place you go after the cotton is picked. It will allow us to have our cotton products produced outside of a co-op and sell to whoever we want." This independence is essential to Julius. He wants to ensure that brands that profit from their cotton contribute to the community. The vision for Julius is to spin cotton into gold and to elevate all those around him. He hopes that one day his 5-month-old son will continue the family legacy and keep it running.