The plan to honor Centralia's founder preceded the events in Charlottesville, but once those images of hate erupted, the tribute to this son of a slave took on new meaning. "This is relevant to our country," said Max Vogt, a local real-estate agent.

Share story

CENTRALIA — Once upon a time, a man in Centralia needed a job. He was a mess, unable to save a buck or feed his family, those failings edging him nearly to tears. He showed up at the house of George Washington, the son of a slave who had founded the town and remained one of its wealthiest men.

“Look me in the eye,” Washington said.

The man confessed his family was out of food, that he was broke and nearly broken.

Washington put him to work. He had the man chop wood to take home to his family, fed him and gave what he earned to the man’s wife so he wouldn’t waste it.

The person telling this story is Alan Woods, a Centralia pastor with a thick, graying beard and a white George Washington bracelet. He has told it many times, and his voice animates at the payoff.

“What he did with this man was build his self-esteem up,” Woods says. “He just totally changed this man’s life. That’s what we can do.”

Ask, and just about everyone around here has their favorite story about Washington, their own spin on why he matters.

Earlier this year, a town committee brainstormed ways to celebrate Washington’s 200th birthday. The group finally decided to dedicate a whole year to honoring him. Its most ambitious idea was to erect a bronze statue of Washington and his wife, Mary Jane, to go in the park that Washington donated and is named after him.

But it’s impossible to think about a statue of Washington — who as a black man needed an exemption from the law just to stay in the Pacific Northwest — and not think about Charlottesville, Virginia.

The plan to honor him preceded the events in Charlottesville this summer, but once they erupted and the country divided, once more, over the merits of Confederate monuments, and symbols of division in general, the project took on a new context. That it’s happening in Centralia, a town of nearly 17,000 with only 62 African Americans in the latest census, makes it more interesting.

“I saw it this way,” Woods says. “We’re trying to build history, and they’re tearing it down.”

So far, they’ve raised about a quarter of the $100,000 needed for the statue. But while the idea has been uncontroversial, the project has led to deeper conversations in this community.

At the first meeting to discuss the town’s plans, Woods, among the few African Americans on the committee, listened as people talked about Washington — his generosity, his pioneer spirit, his selflessness. But he wondered if the committee was focused on the right question. A birthday wasn’t enough.

Woods admired Washington and enjoyed the stories about him, just like everyone else, but he believed the project needed more substance. If the statue was just to honor a great man, or to prove that Centralia wasn’t racist, he wasn’t interested, even if that great man defied injustice.

There had to be a deeper reason.

So he spoke up: Why now?

“Under man in the fight”

George Washington founded Centralia in 1875, a place with a church, a school and a park, all of which he donated. What he really founded was an idea.

Little remains in his voice — he left behind no personal papers or letters — but there are clues.

Washington embodied the characteristics that defined the 19th century pioneer: ambitious, skilled with a gun, able to envision a future among the West’s untamed frontier and the confidence to follow through. Except he was not another pioneer; he was a black pioneer and judged as such.

He was born in Virginia on Aug. 15 in either 1817 or 1818 — the year is sometimes disputed — to a slave father and a white mother. His father was sold away soon after. His mother left the child with white friends to raise. George and his foster parents, whom he loved very much, moved to Missouri before heading west in 1850.

To even live in what was then the Oregon Territory required a special bill from the territorial government because it had banned any “Negro or mulatto.” And even then Washington couldn’t own land, so his foster parents owned it for him.

George made his wealth through a series of ventures, including a sawmill and, later, land sales. He married Mary Jane in his fifties. Little is known about his wife, who was African American and of Jewish ancestry.

By 1875, George and Mary Jane filed a plat for a new city in the recently formed Washington Territory.

He wanted, according to one account, “to find a place in the world, if there was any, where a Negro would be treated like a man.” When Washington died in 1905, the Seattle Republican, an African-American newspaper, wrote: “There was not a selfish bone in the man and he so lived as to always do good to the under man in the fight.”

Years later, a white acquaintance said, “Though his ancestry traces back to the colored race and slavery, old George was one of the whitest, squarest, and kindest men.”

He intended it as a compliment, but the point was unmistakable: Washington’s success was defined by the white world.

“It has to be real”

Alan Woods, the pastor at Trinity Christian Fellowship, needed more. That’s why he asked, “Before we go any further, why are we doing this? Why now?” The “why now” might have seemed obvious — a historic anniversary. But Woods wanted the town to reflect more deeply on where it was today, and how Washington fit into that picture.

“The one thing I truly was thinking was: If we’re going to do this, it has to be real,” he says. “It can’t be that we’re trying to do this to show that we’re not racist. It has to be something we’re doing because we believe in it.”

“It came to the point,” he says, “that we wanted to restore our community back.”

Woods has lived in Centralia since 2006, and his daughter is this year’s Miss Lewis County. He mentions that Centralia had ended up No. 1 on one of those worst-places-to-live-in-Washington lists. Lewis County is wrestling with a well-documented methamphetamine problem, and Centralia is dealing with homelessness that one business owner described to the local paper as “out of hand.”

As Woods talks on a park bench, two men a short distance away start arguing.The shouting grows loud enough that Woods must repeat himself.

“The problem we have here is a social divide,” he says. “There are more people hurting in this community than people really realize.”

Woods isn’t interested in reclaiming history. He does not believe, for example, that Confederate statues should be removed. That, he says, is a sign of weakness, another way to divide the country.

Three or four times a week, he approaches people at church or the grocery store and asks if they know about George Washington. Have they heard the stories?

That’s what history means to him: a chance to confront people in the world today.

He usually tells them about the Panic of 1893, when Centralia was on the cusp of depression. Washington — whose estimated worth was nearly $4 million in today’s dollars — bought food from Portland and Chehalis to give to the town. But Woods loves the story about the man Washington revitalized.

He looks at the people in the park.

“Because that’s what we can do for one another,” he says. “That’s my hope.”

He puts his arm on the bench.

“How are we going to do this? I don’t know. I’ve been doing it one person at a time.”

Part of history

This is a story about that bench.

Max Vogt, a real-estate agent and Centralia’s mayor pro tem, walks by it most days.

“Welcome to Mayberry,” he says, passing downtown antique shops and cafes.

Vogt has white hair and a white goatee. He restored a Victorian home and turned it into his office, then hung a portrait of Washington above the fireplace because, he says, Washington was the town’s “first real-estate agent.”

In the park, Vogt walks past a large statue of a soldier, a memorial for the men killed in the Centralia Massacre of 1919, when a gunbattle erupted between World War I veterans and pro-union activists during an Armistice Day parade.

Vogt stops a few steps from George Washington’s comparatively modest plaque in front of the city library.

“This is the bench I donated to the city,” he says, gesturing to an empty bench. “It doesn’t look like much.”

Vogt paid $2,000 for the bench, and if Centralia can raise the money, this is where the statue will go. “To me, it’s like buying a place in history,” Vogt says. “My business, my whole life is here. I’m proud of it.”

He sees Washington as uncelebrated in American history and calls him “unrecognized as an American hero.” Sometimes, Vogt sits on the bench and visualizes the statue.

“What’s amazing to me is that while a lot of our country is trying to tear down statues, we’re raising money to build a statue of a former slave,” he says, though Washington himself wasn’t a slave. “That’s why I think this is relevant to our country. We hope this is part of the healing process.”

“History isn’t comfortable”

Sarah Stone, a guidance counselor at the local middle school, is instantly outgoing, the kind of person who makes strangers feel like friends.

She has a story to share.

The morning after the presidential election, Stone realized, “Crap, I have to get gas.” She was filling up at the station near school when she heard a man yell, “Go back to Africa.” He added a racial epithet.

Stone called her mom and burst into tears. The election had left her raw, and she debated going home, calling it a day.

“Then I was like, ‘We always talk to the kids about being resilient,’” she says. So she stayed.

She posted the story on Facebook, and Shaun King, a social commentator and writer, shared it with his large following.

“I was shocked by the brazenness of it,” Stone says. “It took me back to the spring before when we were driving to a meeting and I saw someone walking with a swastika on the back of his shirt and SS on the front. That, for me, was jarring.”

So were some of the reactions. “People were like, ‘I live here, that would never happen,’ ” Stone says.

Stone does not live in Centralia; she commutes from Olympia. Part of her thought, “Am I going to want to come back here at night? Is this now a sundown town?” But she reminded herself, “That’s ridiculous. Just because one incident occurs doesn’t mean you condemn the rest of the town.”

She did not know about George Washington before working at the middle school. But when asked how she views the incident in the context of Washington’s life, she answers right away.

“How fitting, in a way, that an incident occurred that addressed some of the struggles that this man and his family must have felt,” she says. “How random but also how fitting.”

It’s tempting to gloss over the racism Washington must have encountered because so little of it is recorded. A few stories survive.

Once, a man from the South moved to Centralia and built a tall fence between his place and Washington’s because he didn’t want to associate with a black man. But, as the story goes, Washington won him over. Another time, Washington was, apparently, poisoned. A friend who helped save him that night remembered Washington saying he had a lot of enemies because he was black.

“Maybe with the statue, maybe it will start to change the local dialogue,” Stone says. “Or at least shift the community mindset and thinking by remembering. But who knows.

“History isn’t comfortable.”

Carrying on

In 1889, the Montrose Democrat, a small and long-defunct newspaper in northeast Pennsylvania, for some reason ran a story about George Washington.

Washington was 72 and very much alive. The paper called him a “big capitalist” and reasoned that if he lived another 12 years, “he will be a millionaire many times over.”

Those were badges of success, what carried him in a world designed to make success difficult, impossible even.

“They tell me that in business he is as shrewd as a fox,” the paper went on, “but one is forcibly attracted to him by the kindly smile that plays about his features, telling plainly that neither age nor injustice has soured the disposition of the runaway colored Virginian.”

The story ended: “He loves to stroll about the town and watch it growing.”

To build a town and nourish it to life required a great deal of faith — not in himself, but in the future. What were his hopes and fears for that future? Those thoughts are lost. But he left behind something more tangible, more alive, a town fighting to carry on what he started.