Video: Pulling Cotton Versus Picking Cotton

One of the most fun, and most informative, couples I met while working on Tomlinson Hill was Charles and Zelma Tomlinson. Charles is the grandson of Peter, the last black Tomlinson born into slavery on Tomlinson Hill. Zelma married Charles on the Hill when she was 17 years old and they’ve been together over 60 years.

Charles and Zelma agreed to meet me in Marlin in September 2012 to show me around the parts of Tomlinson Hill and Falls County that they called home. They showed me where the African American Tomlinsons lived when they were sharecroppers, and the home they built when sharecropping came to an end. Their memories, both good and bad, helped me understand our family stories so much better.

The cotton crop was coming in while we were visiting the Hill, and I asked them about pulling cotton, which is the phrase used by most former sharecroppers in Falls County. Zelma told me they are two different things, depending on whether the priority was to harvest the crop fast, or to bring in clean cotton, cotton that doesn’t have a lot of leaves and shells in it. We pulled into a field and she started walking a row, showing us the difference. This 90-pound woman who is barely 5-feet-tall described how she could pick 300 pounds of cotton a day, or pull 700 pounds.

During the filming of this clip, a Texas state trooper pulled up and asked us what we were doing. Zelma, even at 77, recoiled at the big, young white man wearing a badge and a stetson confronting us because we were on private property. He agreed to let us finish filming, but insisted we leave the cotton in the field. Otherwise, he said, it would be theft. Nevertheless, Zelma took some cotton twigs to show her grandchildren in Kansas. She wanted to show them how she had spent her childhood, picking cotton.

We’ll post a conversation with Charles soon.


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