Did you know that the small town of Centralia, Washington was founded by George Washington? No, not that George Washington, but the son of a slave.
Born in Virginia in 1817 to an African-American father and white mother, George was taken in by a couple named Cochran after his father was sold and his mother gave him up. In 1850 they all moved out to Oregon, then north in 1852 to what would later become Washington. However, in 1852, blacks could not own land so Washington had the Cochran’s file a claim for 640 acres (the size of property a person could get under the Donation Land Claim Act). Later, when Washington became a territory and did not bar black’s from owning land, the Cochran’s turned Washington’s land over to him.
George met and married Mary, who was also African-American and white. In 1875 they filed a plat to create the town of “Centerville” when they realized that the railroad would be coming right through the area. But they did so much more than just that. They donated land for a church and a cemetery. They enabled the town to grow, thanks to the Washington’s generosity in selling parcels of land for reasonable prices, and even on payments when necessary. Later on, during financial hard times, they helped set up resources to provide for needy townspeople and buying back land to keep it from foreclosure.
The easiest place to see the continued legacy of George and Mary’s generous donations is the square block surrounded by Pearl, Centralia College Boulevard, Main, and Silver Streets. This is the land they donated for a town square. It is now known as George Washington Park and holds the Carnegie Library, along with a gazebo, and a war memorial. The townspeople enjoy summer nights in the park, listening to “Music in the Park” performed under the shade of several huge trees. This is also where you’ll see the town Christmas Tree lighting up the night all during December.
The town was renamed to Centralia in 1883 because people thought the name was too easy to confuse with many other towns named Centerville.
George Washington died on August 26, 1905. This beloved man had one of the largest funerals ever held in the town and he is now buried in Washington Lawn Cemetery, the cemetery that he provided land for. The large mural of him is painted on the side of the Key Bank building. Key Bank’s address is 201 W. Main Street but the mural is on the side facing Pearl Street. Stop by and take a look at the picture of George along with his dog in front of the door to his house. Then walk on across Main Street to George Washington Park and just stand there for a minute, thinking about how it must have been to be there over 135 years ago planning to begin an entire town. The guts and vision that it took were nothing short of amazing.
Nice job, George, nice job indeed. Thank you.