Welcome to the Catfish Club!
SAN DIEGO - When a fireman, postman and a preacher got together over a catfish dinner once week, little did they know, they would be sparking a longtime San Diego tradition. Rev. George Walker Smith and his two friends started holding the informal luncheons in 1970 inside the fellowship hall of his church, Christ United Presbyterian. The trio originally called it the “Colored Folks” Club, but as it started it to expand in numbers and cultures, so did the name. They kept the “CF” part and called it the “Catfish Club.”
The Smith family announces with great sadness the loss of their beloved father and grandfather, Rev. George Walker Smith, age 91, on February 15, 2020.
The Rev. George Walker Smith, a religious leader and civic icon in San Diego, dies at 91.
Friday, March 6, 11:00 am
Christ United Presbyterian Church
3025 Fir Street
San Diego, CA 92102
Complimentary Valet parking will be available.
You can live stream the services by clicking the link if you are unable to attend: http://apps.apple.com/us/app/kgtv-10news-in-san-diego/id530143054
FEB. 15, 2020
The Rev. George Walker Smith, a titan in San Diego civic life for six decades and a trailblazing leader in the region’s African-American community, died Saturday. He was 91 years old and leaves behind a legacy that started in the pulpit and extended into public education and politics.
Smith died at Kindred Hospital in San Diego, where he had been receiving care for about a week, his daughter Carolyn Smith said Saturday. The exact cause of death was not known. His daughter said her father left a distinct imprint on San Diego that coupled his minister’s heart with a deep commitment to social justice.
“He was a very caring, kind, gracious man,” she said, “who stood up for those who couldn’t do it for themselves, regardless of how that impacted him.”
Smith’s life took him from a small Alabama town, to seminary in the gritty steel city of Pittsburgh and ultimately to building and leading an influential church in sun-splashed San Diego. The through-line in his life was his faith and his dedication to education. He had a clear-eyed and uncompromising view of the evils of racism, and an equally abiding belief that if people simply committed to speaking with each other civilly and got to know one another, they would realize they were far more similar than different.
“He always said, ‘You know if you sit down and talk to me and get to know me, you might find you like me,’” his daughter said. “It was that simple and that is what he believed.”
That idealism and his pastor’s robes were not signs of weakness. Smith was outspoken and unafraid to take on authority and speak out against injustice.
“He was a very strong member of the San Diego community,” said Leon Williams, a former county supervisor who was also a path-breaking African-American elected official in San Diego. “He did a lot of things in the early days when division and racism was a real problem for San Diegans. George was one of the strongest people to break down the stereotypes and injustices.”
He was the first African-American elected to office in San Diego, winning a race for the school board in 1963. He started the Catfish Club, a weekly lunch meeting on civic affairs, in 1970, and it soon became an integral part of public life in the city — a mandatory stop for aspiring politicians, elected officials and the quiet power brokers in the city.
Mayor Kevin Faulconer, like Smith a Republican, recalled that the lunches were nonpartisan and open to all. “To go to the Catfish Club in its heyday was to get a front-row seat on the most important issues facing San Diego,” Faulconer said.
Faulconer lamented the passing of not only Smith the person but also what he stood for. “George was a true giant in the San Diego community,” he said. “He was a civic leader, he was a faith leader. He was that rare individual who could bring people together and be a friend to all.”
Smith was born in Hayneville , Ala., on April 28, 1928, the son of sharecroppers. He was a student who stood out amid the impoverished and segregated schools in the small town. He recalled in an oral history on file at San Diego State University there was a single shack black students attended for half the year, and only up to ninth grade.
The white owner of the plantation, however, noticed his promise and told his father, “Well, George is too damned smart not to go on to school,” Smith said in the oral history.
The landowner arranged to send him to a church-run school in a nearby county. From there he went to Knoxville College in Tennessee and eventually on to Pittsburgh Theological Seminary School.
It was after graduating from seminary school that Smith headed west to San Diego in 1956 with his wife, Elizabeth Irene to start a Presbyterian church in Golden Hill. A few years later the congregation moved to Christ United Presbyterian Church at 30th and Fir Street in South Park which he led for decades.
Smith became the first African-American elected in the city when he won a race for the San Diego Board of Education in 1963. He was on the board for 16 years, serving as president four times. He immediately set to work to diversify the district’s faculty, working to bring in numerous African-American teachers many of whom were recruited from his native South.
In 1976, he was elected president of the National School Boards Association. He also served on the National Advisory Commission on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the White House Committee on Education and the Arts, the California School Boards Association, the San Diego Community College District board and the San Diego Crime Commission. He was the first president of the Citizens Advisory Review Board that monitored police practices in the city in the mid-1980s.
Though he had a prominent public profile, it never overshadowed his work as a pastor. Cathy Ramsey, a lifelong parishioner who also worked as his personal secretary, said Smith’s days were filled with a steady stream of visitors. “He knew everybody but he didn’t treat anyone less than, or more than,” she said. “Everyone was the same. He was a giant and he could be the most humble person you’ve ever met.”
San Diego Assemblywoman Shirley Weber said Smith urged her into elected office, persuading her to run for a school board seat that she won and held from 1988 to 1996. “San Diego has lost a real champion,” she said Saturday. “He was deeply rooted in education. He was involved in social and political issues. He was unafraid to do things.”
Smith retired from his church in 2000. He remained a strong force in people’s lives, recalled Michael Brunker, the former executive director of the Jackie Robinson Family YMCA. “Here’s a guy that walked the talk in so many ways,” he said. “He wasn’t in good health late in the game but he was still engaged. He wanted to know, and listen, and give good counsel along the way.”
In addition to his daughter he is survived by his son, Anthony, four grandchildren and a great-grandson. He was preceded in death by his wife, another daughter, Joyce Smith Yeldell, and grandson Dmaj Smith.