For most people when you say the name George Washington, a presidential figure comes to mind. But in Centralia, Washington, that name belongs to a different founding father.
Lifelong resident Carrie Aadland says in Centralia, people refer to him as “our George Washington.”
“We’re excited to celebrate his character and his faith,” said Aadland of the town’s founder. “But of course, what rivets you is he was black and founded a white town.”
George Washington was one of few African-American pioneers who migrated from the south to the Pacific Northwest.
Born on Aug. 15, 1817, to a black slave and an English woman, his parents gave him to a white family, James and Anna Cochran, to escape a life of slavery in Virginia.
In 1850, Washington traveled west along the Oregon Trail. When he arrived, the territory’s black exclusion laws pushed him north of the Columbia River.
He became the fourth American to settle in what would eventually become Lewis County. He chose a 640-acre plot of land between the Chehalis river and the Skookumchuck River.
In 1875, he and his wife Mary Jane eventually founded the town of Centerville, which was later renamed Centralia, about halfway between Seattle and Portland.
“Centralia is the largest city in the United States that was ever founded by a couple of color,” said Centralia resident and former Washington legislator Stuart Halsan. He’s among a group of residents who are planning a year of events to celebrate Washington’s 200th birthday next week.
“And that’s really a big deal,” Halsan said. “We want people all over the place to get the idea that this is special.”
In the center of town is George Washington Park, one of the original parcels of land Washington platted in Centralia. A stone plaque recognizing Washington rests there in front of the town’s library.
“It’s really an amazing American story,” said Brian Mittge, the chair of the George Washington Bicentennial Committee. “From slavery era, the Civil War, pioneer expansion, development of cities — it’s all in his life.”
Signs of Washington’s legacy are visible as you walk through downtown Centralia. Around the corner from the park is a two-story mural of George and his dog, Rockwood. A metal fence surrounds two large gravestones at Washington Lawn Cemetery, one for George and his wife, the other for the Cochran family who raised George.
“His imprint is all over the city,” Mittge said.
But the memory of the town’s founder wasn’t always so apparent, said Quintard Taylor, a professor of American Studies at the University of Washington. He specializes in charting the migration of African-Americans to the Pacific Northwest. When he began his research in the 1970s, he started with rural towns, which brought him to Centralia.
“I went into the library and I spoke to the individuals there about George Washington, the founder of the town,” Taylor said. “And no one seemed to know who he was. I was a bit surprised by that — well, I was actually shocked by that.”
Flash forward 25 years, and Taylor said he’s pleased to see the town has rediscovered the story of its founder.
“The fact that people are embracing him as the founder of the town,” he said. “And a town that has a very, very small African-American population.”
Recent census numbers show Centralia is 85 percent white and African-Americans make up less than 1 percent of the population.
Compared to previous decades, Centralia is getting less white, but the number of black residents hasn’t changed much. Even back when Washington founded the town, Centralia was overwhelmingly white.
“I think that’s the unusual part of the story,” Taylor said. “Not that George Washington and his wife founded the town, but that they founded a town that was not intended to be a black settlement, or a black haven from segregation.
“It was simply intended to be a town where people settled and found their prosperity and built their lives,” he said.
Part of the yearlong festivities include educating people about the town’s unique history. Cassia Grandin is a black woman who lives in Kelso, another predominantly white town in Washington.
Grandin was antique shopping in downtown Centralia when she saw a photo of Washington on a flyer for the bicentennial.
“I had never heard about him and initially thought it was a hoax,” she said.
Grandin immediately started researching Washington’s history and became drawn to his story. Since then, she’s been driving up to Centralia most weeks to help with the celebration.
“It’s just empowering. It means so much to me, as a black person, to have read about such an amazing individual,” Grandin said. “Two hundred years later, this gentleman is going to get the recognition and I’m so proud.”
The celebration will kick off this weekend with a 5k run around the boundaries of George Washington’s 640-acre homestead. A community-wide birthday party will be held in George Washington Park, where organizers are hoping to raise enough money to erect a bronze statue of Washington by August 2018.