Centralia looks to honor its African-American founder with a statue

Centralia's Founder George Washington. (Photo via the George Washington Bicentennial Committee) 

CENTRALIA, Wash. -- City of Centralia hopes to raise enough money to erect a statue to the town's founder George Washington.

No, not *that* George Washington. This George Washington was a former African-American slave who made a fortune in the Wild West.

"He was a pioneer who was born in 1817 in Virginia, crossed the American continent and really had a remarkable life," said Brian Mittge, Co-Founder of the George Washington Bicentennial Committee. "He was born of a white mother and a black slave father."

A statue of an African-American pioneer going up is a striking counterpoint to the figures of the old Confederacy that are coming down.

Mittge said Washington headed west on the Oregon Trail in 1850 -- in the years before the Civil War -- only to find the Oregon Territory enforced racist laws against black settlers.

"He kind of came as far away from that as he could up to the Centralia area and it was far enough away that he could fly under the radar screen a little bit," Mittge said.

It worked out, and Washington's admiring neighbors petitioned the government to allow him to obtain ownership rights.

Anticipating the coming of the Northern Pacific Railroad, Washington and his wife founded what they called "Centerville" -- changed to Centralia later to avoid confusion with an Eastern Washington Centerville.

Washington owned much of the land, some of which he donated to a church, cemetery and a park. Other parts he sold to new residents.

When hard times came, Washington refused to foreclose on mortgages he held.

"He would say, 'No, that's fine. Stay here. We will work it out. If you can't pay me right now, that's OK, pay me when you can,' " Mittge said. "And he would bring up loads of bacon and flour and rice from Portland to feed his people."

And now the town wants to honor their founder on what would have been his 200th birthday by erecting a statue. Mittge and friends are working to raise the $100,000.

"He was a generous guy; he was an industrious guy; he was just a honest man," Mittge said. "He was a guy we would all be proud to claim as our founder."

Centralia is hosting a pop-up museum dedicated to George Washington through Oct. 22 at 328 N. Tower Avenue.

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