Rev. George Walker Smith and Leon Williams have been part of the fabric of San Diego for more than half a century. Williams, 92, was San Diego’s first African-American City Council member and San Diego County’s first and only African-American county supervisor. Smith, 85, was the first elected African-American on the San Diego school board and is the founder of the Catfish Club. The two men met with the U-T Editorial Board recently to discuss race relations, past and present. Here is an edited transcript of the interview.
Q: The birthday celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. this year comes at a time when the country has been through a great deal of difficulty in terms of race relations with several police killings of unarmed black men. With that as the background, how would you characterize the state of race relations in America today?
WILLIAMS: I’ve seen improvement from what it used to be. I also see tremendous need for greater improvement. I have never understood how some people think they’re inherently better than other people. So when I see (improvement) that’s always a hopeful thing. But to think that it took so long is discouraging. I think it needs to move faster.
Q: Rev. Smith, in terms of race relations how would you characterize San Diego today compared to when you arrived?
SMITH: A lot of what we say will come out of the context of our experiences. I grew up in southern Alabama. I grew up on a plantation. Although my parents were not considered a part of the plantation because they worked for the man in the big house. I was like a member of the family. I was his youngest son’s personal playmate, so I didn’t have to (work the fields). Yet I saw a lot that went on around me that was inhuman to black people. Although I never experienced the outright rudeness because I belonged to the big house. But a lot of black people were treated like dogs. I learned about how things really were. And it has helped to shape me. I went on to college and graduate school and the Presbyterian Church got me to come here to San Diego to start a church. There was no black Presbyterian Church in San Diego. There was a lot of opposition. I just ignored most of it. Overall San Diego was a very funny and precarious city. I used to teasingly say to my friends and associates, San Diego is a bit like Mississippi. Blacks ain’t (welcome) what was it, north of Market? It really didn’t begin to integrate until the late ‘50s. Not even the Defense Department industries would hire blacks. Yet this is, for black people, a Navy town. The population of the black people in San Diego in ’56 basically was made up by (former) military people. But there was one little black community in San Diego. And that was in La Jolla. People from Texas and other parts of the country had shacks for their black servants who would serve them when they came over here during summer or any other time. And you still have a scattering of blacks right there. So it was unique.