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San Diego Civic, Religious Leader Rev. George Walker Smith Dies

A young George Walker Smith in an undated photo

Credit: San Diego State University

Above: A young George Walker Smith in an undated photo

Longtime religious and civic leader the Rev. George Walker Smith, the first African-American to be elected in the city when he won the race for the San Diego Board of Education in 1963, has died at 91.

Smith died at Kindred Hospital in San Diego on Saturday. The cause of death was not immediately released.

In 1970, Smith established the Catfish Club, a public forum for politicians and the community to voice their opinions on political and social issues, according to San Diego State University Library's biography of Smith.

Later, Smith became pastor at the Christ United Presbyterian Church. He retired in 2000.

Smith was born in Haynesville, Ala., in 1928. He received a Bachelor of Arts from Knoxville College, and a Master's in education from Alabama State University.

Reported by Priya Sridhar , Video by Matthew Bowler

Because of racial tensions in Alabama, Smith moved to Pittsburgh, where he attended the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary School and interned at a predominately affluent, white church for three years, the SDSU biography said. After seminary, Smith left Pittsburgh to lead the congregation at the Golden Hill United Presbyterian Church in San Diego.

In 1956, when Smith arrived in San Diego, Golden Hill United Presbyterian Church was, according to Smith, the only integrated church in San Diego. At Golden Hill, he preached the social gospel and encouraged community activism.

Photo credit: San Diego State University

A scrapbook with newspaper clippings from when George Walker Smith being elected as Board of Education president in this undated photo from San Diego State University oral history project.

In 1963, Smith won a seat on the Board of Education and began his tenure by changing the ethnic composition of teachers. Although he was initially supportive of school integration, he later became disenchanted because of the still-prevalent social segregation.

During Smith's 16 years on the board, he served as president four times. He also was president of the Council of Great City Schools and of the National School Board Association.

San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer said of Smith: "George was a true giant in the San Diego community. He was a civic leader, he was a faith leader. He was that rare individual who could bring people together and be a friend of all."

Smith is survived by a daughter, Carolyn, a son, Anthony, four grandchildren and a great-grandson. He was preceded in death by his wife, Elizabeth Irene, another daughter, Joyce Smith Yeldell, and grandson Dmaj Smith.

KPBS is a service of San Diego State University.

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