Everyone knows George Washington, founding father and first president of the United States. But this is the story of another George Washington, a former Black slave and trailblazing pioneer who, in 1875, overcame incredible obstacles to become the founding father of Centralia, Washington—the largest city founded by an African American of the era.
George was born into slavery in Virginia in 1817. His father was a Black slave and his mother a white British woman. As parents, they made the painful choice to give up George to a white family, so that their child could be raised as a free citizen and live a better life. He and his adopted family continued on a gradual westward path, moving from one place to another, wherever the opportunities arose. As he grew, George continued west, looking for a place to settle. His first attempts to establish businesses in Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, and Oregon failed due to the racist laws banning non-whites from owning land and operating businesses, even in free states.
In the 1850s, George’s adoptive parents bought land with the intention of giving it to George, because it was illegal for Black citizens to settle in Oregon Territory at that time. When the Northwest region was divided, Washington Territory’s laws did not prohibit African Americans from owning land, and George’s parents were able to transfer the land to his name.
George staked a claim of 640 acres at the confluence of the Skookumchuck and Chehalis Rivers (originally land of the Native Chehalis tribe, and today, the city of Centralia). He was the fourth settler in the area. By the 1870s, George had met and married an African American woman named Mary Jane. Settling in this rugged and wild area gave George and his wife the opportunity to shape a new city from the ground up (quite literally). Together, they officially established their new town, named Centerville (renamed Centralia in 1883).
George recognized the importance of Centralia’s location, as the Northern Pacific Railroad was rapidly expanding. In 1872, the NPR built railroad tracks through his land. George divided his acreage into plots and offered four blocks of land for $10 (only $360 today!). This dirt-cheap deal attracted new settlers who quickly developed the town. In 1880, Centralia’s first train depot became an important stop between Kalama and Tacoma. George established the town’s first church and the public square, which is now George Washington Park, named for him.
During the economic panic of 1893, George Washington made important decisions that supported struggling residents and kept Centralia afloat during trying times. He created charity programs that supplied free food staples to residents who suddenly found themselves impoverished. He waived foreclosures on his properties, enabling tenants to keep their homes and businesses. He bought vacant buildings to help keep the town alive. George Washington’s support was vital during this time of hardship. Because of George’s leadership, Centralia weathered the storm before the next Gold Rush revived the town’s economy. When George Washington died in 1905, his prominent status and well-loved memory brought the entire town out to his funeral, while businesses closed for a day of mourning. May George Washington’s influence on the history of Centralia and the state of Washington continue to inspire future generations of trailblazers and a diversity of courageous, compassionate leaders.