Slavery on trial in the oregon territory

Oregon should follow Washington’s lead in honoring early African Americans (Guest opinion)

George Washington, the founder of Centralia, Wash., is featured in a mural on the side of a bank in town, one of many memorials there in his honor. (R. Gregory Nokes)

George Washington, the founder of Centralia, Wash., is featured in a mural on the side of a bank in town, one of many memorials there in his honor. (R. Gregory Nokes)

THE OREGONIAN — To someone steeped in the sad history of early Oregon’s racism, as I have been in my recent writing, it was a relief to visit Centralia, Wash., the other day and witness how that nearly all-white community honors the African American who founded the town.

I knew the brief outline of the story of George Washington, who was born into slavery in Virginia. An 1850 emigrant on the Oregon Trial, he settled in present-day Washington to avoid the Oregon Territory’s exclusion law against blacks. The law posed a threat north of the Columbia River, but less so.

Washington acquired land and became a successful farmer and years later, founded the town that became Centralia. I included these brief few facts in my 2013 book, Breaking Chains: Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory.

Through the years, I’d passed Centralia without stopping several times. But as I headed to the town for a recent speaking engagement, I resolved to see the park and the plaque, wondering if they’d be hard to find.

They weren’t.

George Washington Park is at the center of the city. It hadn’t occurred to me the park would actually be named for him, probably because of my awareness of the widespread discrimination against African Americans during the region’s early history. And the plaque was more than a plaque. It was a large flat granite memorial in front of the old Carnegie Library next to the park. Washington had donated land for both.

The wording on the plaque is worth repeating:

George Washington was born a slave on Aug 15, 1817 near Winchester, Va., and at birth was given to James and Anna Cochran. As a young man he taught himself many trades and became a champion of equal rights. In 1850 he came west with his foster parents. He staked a squatter’s claim at the confluence of the Chehalis and Skookumchuck rivers, built a cabin and operated a ferry and way station known as Cochran’s Landing. During the 1855 Indian uprising, he helped build Fort Henness at Grand Mound. After the arrival of the railroad in 1872, he platted and sold lots and named the new town Centerville, changed later to Centralia. 
 
He became a respected man of means and made liberal donations of land for public use, notably this park during the panic of 1893. He was a one-man relief agency, providing food and jobs and lending money without interest to all who needed it… (Aug. 26, 1905). This town is his monument.

A large mural of Washington and his dog, Rockwood, covers a nearby bank wall. The mural suggests a man at ease, comfortable in his skin and without a care in the world. But the image belies the far-sighted businessman adept at overcoming the limitations imposed upon him because of his race.

When Washington came north, he still was threatened by the exclusion law. Local residents had to petition the Oregon’s Territorial Legislature to seal his right to stay. He also wasn’t allowed to own land, so his foster father filed the land claim for 640 acres, which Washington later bought. It was this land that became part of the Northern Pacific Railroad route and the town of Centralia.

Washington died in 1905 at 88 and is buried in Centralia’s Washington Lawn Cemetery. On Aug 12, three days before his 200th birthday, the town will kick off a year-long celebration with events at the park and a “fun run” around the boundaries of his land claim.

Centralia’s recognition of Washington makes one wonder why Oregon doesn’t similarly honor Robin Holmes, another remarkable African American. Holmes came to Oregon as a slave in 1844 from Missouri and wasn’t freed until 1850. He also overcame discrimination and made a major contribution to his Oregon community. Although illiterate, he brought a successful 1852 suit against his former Polk County owner to free his three children who were still being held as slaves. Judge George Williams’ ruling in favor of Holmes established that slavery was unlawful in the Oregon territory. Holmes and several other former slaves also integrated a white church in Salem.

But there are no memorials, no plaques, no public recognition of the important contribution Holmes made to his community and race.

R. Gregory Nokes is a former reporter and assistant managing editor at The Oregonian. He is the author of “Breaking Chains: Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory,” published by Oregon State University Press in 2013.