George Walker Smith

Religious Leader and Civic Icon

In 1963, George Walker Smith became the first Black elected to office in San Diego County, serving on the San Diego Unified School Board of Education for 16 years (and was elected its president four times). One of his key accomplishments was initiating a diversity campaign, insisting that the district travel to the Historically Black Colleges to recruit Black teachers and educators.

George Walker Smith was born in 1928 in Haynesville, Alabama as the third of 11 children born to sharecroppers on one of the hundreds of plantations that continued to exist into the 1960’s. At a very young age, George learned two lessons that served him well throughout his life: (1) An education is needed to be successful; and (2) “following the tail of a mule” is not how life is supposed to be lived.

Always a strong student through primary school, he attended the Presbyterian boarding school Miller’s Ferry Institute where he played basketball, became student body president, and ultimately graduated valedictorian. He was also awarded a $100 scholarship to attend Knoxville College, majoring in chemistry and German. Knoxville College is where he met and married his beloved wife, the late Elizabeth Irene Hightower Smith. His goal of becoming a doctor was short-lived. Alabama’s laws prohibited Blacks from attending any state supported medical schools, so he took a job teaching science at Arlington Institute.

By the summer of 1953, George decided to become a Presbyterian minister. He had witnessed a great deal of prejudice and discrimination in the south and being a part of the clergy was another way to help humankind. Following George’s graduation from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 1956, the Smith family, which now included their son Anthony, traveled to San Diego to start what would be known as Golden Hill Presbyterian Church. In 1981, Golden Hill and Brooklyn Heights Presbyterian Churches merged to form Christ United Presbyterian Church and Rev. Smith was called as its Pastor.

In 1970 he started the Catfish Club, a weekly lunch meeting on civic affairs which the San Diego Union-Tribune called “a mandatory stop for aspiring politicians, elected officials and the quiet power brokers in the city. “Something that started as a meeting between friends and colleagues of like minds, eventually became “the place to be.” The Catfish Club was open to all and non-partisan. The discussions included the most critical issues facing San Diego.

Rev. George Walker Smith retired in December 2000, after more than 30 years in the ministry. His role in politics and education in San Diego was profound and it can be said that he changed the landscape and direction of San Diego Schools for the better and helped to teach the citizens of San Diego the need to treat one another with civility.

Submitted by Carolyn Smith and Joyce Y. Suber