African-American pioneer George Washington (pictured) made his historical mark by founding the city of Centerville in Washington state in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. The city, now called Centralia, was established on this day in 1875.
Washington was born in Fredrick County, Va., on August 15, 1817, to a slave Father and Mother of English descent. His father was sold to a new owner, prompting his mother to give him away to a White couple.
James and Anna Cochran raised Washington as their own and took him on journeys across the Midwest.
Washington had advantages that other Blacks in America didn’t enjoy: Washington’s adoptive parents filed a special court order to have their son recognized as a full American citizen. He was also able to read and had opportunities to establish businesses.
However, racism and discrimination would mar much of his progress in the short term.
Like many in the country at the time, Washington and his family moved to the West in 1850 to seek better outcomes. The family landed in the Oregon Territory, hoping to give Washington a chance to carve his own path despite the racial injustices.
The family settled in what was known as Oregon City, but then crossed the Columbia River in to what would later become Washington state territory.
In 1852, Washington claimed a plot of land near the Skookumchuck and Chehalis rivers. Washington cleared the land of trees and shrubbery and made a farm there. He was just the fourth settler in that area.
Blacks were forbidden by Oregon law from owning land, so he had his adoptive parents claim 640 acres under their name. After a short while and the expansion of Washington state territory, the Cochrans sold the land back to Washington.
After the passing of his parents, Washington and his wife decided in 1872 that the land they owned could serve as a connecting point between the Tacoma and Kalama railroad lines. The couple began plans of creating the city of Centerville.
On January 8, 1875, Washington and his wife legally filed to own their plot for land for the the town and offered lots at $10 a piece for anyone who wished to live there. The town grew in size rapidly, but the new settlers didn’t like the name because another town in the state shared the name. It was changed to Centralia in 1883 and was officially incorporated in 1886.
Washington’s wife, Mary Jane, passed just two years after the town’s incorporation, but Washington continued to work as a leader in the town. A kind man, Washington would even let settlers stay in the town without paying and helped others to find jobs and food.
When residents couldn’t afford the mortgage, Washington would buy back the properties to keep the city going.
Washington worked for Centralia up until his death in August of 1905. He was 88 years of age. A beloved figure in town, the funeral was reportedly the largest ever held in Centralia.
Washington was buried in the same cemetery of the church that he donated land to. The city of Centralia is still bustling to this day, and a memorial park with Washington’s name (pictured) rests at the center of the city.