Black in Time

H.T. Smith blazed new trails for black attorneys in South Florida

 
 
Miami attorney and FIU law professor H.T. Smith spoke at commencement for his undergraduate alma mater, Florida A&M, last year.
Miami attorney and FIU law professor H.T. Smith spoke at commencement for his undergraduate alma mater, Florida A&M, last year.
Courtesy of FIU

Special to The Miami Herald

Thinking about Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, what can we tell the children about seeking fairness in the way people are treated, in the way decisions are made and how life is valued?

Many in the community are puzzled why an unarmed teenager, Trayvon Martin, was shot to death just walking down the street.

More than 100 rallies in cities across the country protested the acquittal of George Zimmerman for this crime. Everyone has an opinion. Organizations are encouraging citizens to participate in government on all levels. Parents trying to explain the incident can begin by presenting the structure of our legal system and individuals who devote their lives seeking justice. One example is attorney H. T. Smith.

Smith, one of Miami’s distinguished native sons, will be inducted into the National Bar Association’s Hall of Fame at the association’s annual convention July 31 at the Fontainebleau Hotel on Miami Beach. This event “honors lawyers who have been licensed to practice law for 40 years or more and who have made significant contributions to the cause of justice.”

Founded in 1925, The National Bar Association (NBA) is the oldest and largest association of African American lawyers and judges. The convention’s theme, “a legacy of service, a promise of justice,” also captures Smith’s passion in 40 years of practicing law and pursuing justice. He is being honored for a lifetime dedicated to seeking fairness and valuing life.

After completing his undergraduate studies at Florida A&M University, Smith went to law school at the University of Miami Law School, and graduated with honors in 1973. He was Miami-Dade County’s first African-American assistant public defender, and then the first African-American assistant county attorney. From 1981 to the present, his private practice specializes in personal injury, civil rights and criminal defense.

For four decades he has served on a multitude of judicial committees and community boards. He is the founding president of Miami-Dade’s Black Lawyers Association, later renamed the Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr. Bar Association and past president of the National Bar Association. During his tenure there were 20,000 NBA members.

Ambitious and civic-minded, in 1995 Smith and with two other lawyers raised $4 million dollars and built the NFL Yet Center in Liberty City. Daily it provides 500 youth with homework assistance, computer training, arts and crafts, and sporting activities, including fencing.

He is on the Board of Directors of Our Kids Inc., which provides support and services to abused, abandoned and neglected children in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties.

In 2003, Smith became the first director of the Trial Advocacy Program at the Florida International University College of Law. The 2008, Florida Bar President Francisco R. Angones presented the G. Kirk Haas Humanitarian Award to Smith. “This award recognizes an attorney who has an abiding respect and caring for others, coupled with actual deeds of legal services with no reward beyond the deeds themselves.”

At FAMU’s 125th anniversary 2012 fall commencement ceremony, Professor Smith gave the keynote address, speaking to a capacity crowd of 9,000, including 700 new graduates. His address, “There is Greatness Within You,” encouraged the graduates to believe in themselves as precious resources; to search for their passion and dedicate themselves to it; to “do all the good they can in all the ways they can.”

Born in Miami’s Overtown and educated south of the city in Goulds, Smith grew up constrained by Jim Crow laws that limited black people by custom and law in every phase of life. He chose to seek not revenge but, but justice. At the Hall of Fame induction ceremony he will be honored in the presence of Yolanda Pascal Strader, president of the Wilkie Ferguson Bar Association; Eugene Pettis, president of the Florida Bar; John E. Page, president of the National Bar Association; and family, friends and colleagues.

Perhaps as Smith rises to accept the recognition he will remember local legal pioneers including Richard E.S. Toomey, Miami’s first black attorney, who opened his office in 1913. Decades later, L. E. Thomas became Miami’s first black municipal judge, and Calvin Mapp, Dade County’s first black county judge. We can tell the children, that H. T. Smith and others continue Miami’s 100 year legacy, seeking “liberty and justice for all.”

Dorothy Jenkins Fields, PhD, is a historian and founder of the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida Inc. Send feedback to djf@bellsouth.net.

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