The little-told story of pioneering African-American George Washington (pictured) and his founding of the city of Centerville (now called Centralia) in Washington state is fascinating. The son of a slave Father and Mother of English descent, Washington was born in Fredrick County, Va., on August 15, 1817. After his father was sold to a new owner, his mother gave him away to a White couple; James and Anna Cochran raised Washington, taking him along on their journeys to Ohio and later Missouri.
Washington was literate and hardworking, trying his best to establish businesses in Missouri but was met with discrimination at every turn. Even though his adoptive parents filed a special motion to get Washington full rights as a citizen, it wasn’t enough to remove the obstacle of racism he endured.
Desiring better opportunity, Washington and his adopted family headed west in 1850 toward the Oregon Territory. The move was to help Washington establish himself as a man, an ambitious thought considering the racial divide at the time. The family first settled in to Oregon City, but shortly crossed the Columbia River in to what would later become Washington state territory.
In 1852, Washington staked claim on a plot of land near the Skookumchuck River and Chehalis River. He would clear the land and began to farm there, becoming the fourth settler in the area. Oregon law barred Blacks from owning the land, so he had the Cochrans claim the 640 acres.
After four years and the expansion of Washington territory, the Cochrans sold the land back to their adopted son.
Now in his 50s and with his foster parents long deceased, Washington and his new wife decided in 1872 that their land would be a vital link on the railroad line between the towns of Tacoma and Kalama. Together, husband and wife started on plans of creating the city of Centerville. On January 8, 1875, the Washingtons filed their plat for the town and offered lots at $10 a piece for anyone who wanted to settle there.
As the town grew, settlers grew dissatisfied with the name because another town in the state shared the same name. The name was changed to Centralia in 1883, officially becoming incorporated in 1886.
After his wife, Mary Jane, passed in 1888, Washington became known as a leader and helpful asset to residents in the town. Not only did he allow folks to settle in the town without paying, he would help settlers find jobs and food as well. Even when residents could not afford their mortgage, Washington would buy the properties back and keep the city afloat.
Washington worked tirelessly for the town up until his death at 88 in August of 1905. Beloved by many, the funeral was said to be the largest in the history of Centralia. He was buried in the very cemetery of the church he helped donate land to. Centralia thrives today and a memorial park bearing his name serves as the city’s center.
This amazing story deserves far more attention, proving that hard work and a will to best all odds trumps any barrier to one’s success.
We salute George Washington, founder of the city of Centralia, Wa.