“If there’s any decent place in this world, I’m going to find it.” – George Washington (1817–1905)
That decent place, for this particular George Washington (not that other one), turned out to be what is today known as Centralia, WA.
Born in 1817 in Virginia, George Washington was the son of a black slave and a white woman of English descent. His parents gave him to a white family, James and Anna Cochran, so that he could escape a life of slavery. The Cochrans and their child George moved first to Ohio, then to Missouri. George was given full rights as a citizen (except the right to vote) after the Cochrans petitioned the state of Missouri.
In an attempt to avert a crisis between North and South, the Compromise of 1850 was passed – as part of this legislation, the Fugitive Slave Act was amended. Worried that he might lose his freedom, Washington and his parents came west on the Oregon Trail, where they then headed north to avoid Oregon’s black exclusion laws.
In Washington State, the Cochrans purchased 640 acres of land and sold it to their son. In 1875, Washington and his wife Mary Jane, whom he met in Olympia, WA, founded Centerville, the town that would be renamed Centralia. It is still the largest city in the United States founded by a couple of color. Washington, his wife Mary Jane and his parents are all buried in Centralia’s Washington Lawn Cemetery.
This year, in what would have been George Washington’s 200th birthday, the people of Centralia are honoring their founders with a year of events. We are pleased to be a part of the celebration with our History Pub at the Olympic Club Theater on Tues., August 29. And we are especially pleased to host speaker Dr. Quintard Taylor, a renowned scholar of African American history.
As the Scott and Dorothy Bullitt Professor of American History at the University of Washington, Dr. Taylor is a renowned scholar of African American history, African American history in the West and global African history. Widely published and a frequent visiting lecturer domestically and internationally, one of his most-lasting contributions is the creation of BlackPast.org, a nonprofit organization and 13,000-page website that brings together impressive volumes of African American history. As the site says, “Featuring nine bibliographies of over 5,000 books and distinct sections to aid classroom teaching and learning, this tool is an invaluable resource to K-12 educators, scholars and the general public.”
From a recent story about Washington on OPB:
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.”
If you are interested in learning more about Centralia’s founders prior to our History Pub on 8/29, you can find the entire OPB story here, as well as additional stories in the news, including a piece by KOIN’s Ken Boddie.