The HOPE Public Resource Center honored the noted trial lawyer H.T. Smith, JD '73, with its first Distinguished Leader in Public Service award on Thursday, October 27th. The award was presented during HOPE's annual auction.
"H.T. is a premier example of leadership and commitment through advocacy and service," said Marni Lennon, assistant dean for Public Interest and Pro Bono and director of the HOPE center, which won the American Bar Association's 2011 National Achievement Award in Public Interest.
Smith specializes in civil rights, personal injury and criminal defense. He was among the first class of African Americans to graduate from Miami Law. Later, he became the first African American to serve as an assistant public defender in Miami-Dade County. He was also an assistant county attorney in Miami-Dade County and president of the Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr. Bar Association.
He is a member of the University of Miami's Board of Trustees and a lifetime member of the NAACP, through which he provides many hours of pro bono services.
"I often find myself as the only obstacle between a person and a terrible fate — losing their home, losing their freedom, losing their rights — just little ol' me," Smith said. "It's in those times that I reflect on the blessings of being a lawyer."
In 1995, Smith helped raise $4 million dollars to build the NFL Youth Education Town Center in Liberty City. The complex, which sits on nearly 40 acres of park space, provides children a safe haven to learn and play. He continues to support the center and the many kids who need its resources.
"I am where I am because people cared about me," he said. "To get from where I started to where I am, it's like a million-to-one shot." Smith was raised in Miami during a time when segregation was still strong. A lifetime of adversities followed him throughout his childhood and would become his motivation to become a lawyer. He intended to apply for law school, but before he could do so he was drafted. He spent 400 days in Vietnam, where he was an artillery officer and worked in counterintelligence. Shortly after returning to Miami, he decided to attend Miami Law.
Little did he know that he was beginning another battle: The dean of admissions would not allow Smith to enroll, ostensibly because he had not taken a critical entrance exam. He considered the situation unfair, since the test had been administered while he was on active duty in the war.
"I thought they were telling me no because I was black," he said. "The same reason they told me no, I couldn't go to school in Coral Gables. The same reason they told my mom she couldn't give birth to me in Miami Beach."
So, despite not being enrolled, he went to the Miami Law campus anyway. "I was going to attend law school whether they admitted me or not," Smith said. "I was going to be in the first class of the first room, and the first seat."
The dean of admissions soon realized that Smith was not going to back down. He was allowed to continue taking classes and eventually took the admissions test, which permitted his official enrollment. It was not until many years later that Smith realized how much of a risk the law school had taken for him.
The HOPE award honors not only his path but the role of the people who helped him take it. "This is confirmation," he said, "that I didn't just take advantage of this opportunity and go off and not do my best to pay it back."