Special to South Florida Times
MIAMI — H.T. Smith remembers meeting Nelson Mandela for the first time on this very day 22 years ago — June 28, 1990.
The South African anti-apartheid leader had made Miami one of the first stops of his international tour shortly following his released after 28 years in prison and had come to give a speech at a national labor convention that day.
Smith, a Miami-based attorney and fervent anti-apartheid activist, sat onstage with Mandela during the speech and, at one point, Mandela called him over and hugged him, Smith recalls.
“I felt like I was kissed by history,” Smith said in an interview this week.
To Smith, the memory of that day remains bittersweet even though Mandela’s visit was marred by angry protests and boycotts from Miami’s Cuban exile community.
Mandela’s African National Congress had established close ties to Cuba’s communist regime which publicly denounced apartheid and sent aid to South African freedom fighters. That link to the Cuban government angered Miami’s Cuban exiles and led many of Miami’s Cuban-born elected officials to boycott Mandela’s visit and picket his speech.
The snub against Mandela gave rise to the Miami Boycott, a campaign led by Smith and several African-American attorneys, including Marilyn J. Holifield of Holland & Knight, which lasted three years and ultimately diversified Miami’s hospitality and tourism industry.
“The snub,” Smith said, “was the spark we needed to get people to move, act and fight back.”
This Thursday evening, the Black Hospitality Initiative of Greater Miami, itself a product of the boycott, will honor Smith, Holifield, several other prominent African-Americans and others during its first recognition reception, titled, “Honoring Our Past and Celebrating Our Future,” at Florida International University’s Kovens Conference Center, 3000 N.E. 151st St., North Miami.
The Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau created the Black Hospitality Initiative of Greater Miami in 1991 in response to Miami Boycott’s call for a stronger black presence in hospitality and tourism-related work areas, such as restaurants, sporting events, hotels, cruise lines and airport management.
“This is the first time we have taken time to recognize the reason for our existence and honor those who made it possible,” said Carole Ann Taylor, chairwoman of the Black Hospitality Initiative of Greater Miami.
With an endowment now worth more than $400,000, the Initiative has helped a total of 80 African-American college students earn hospitality degrees at Florida International University since 1992, with nine students earning a master’s degree and 71 earning a bachelor’s degree in hospitality, according to Graylyn Swilley Woods, executive director since 2007.
“The numbers may not look big but the economic impact our scholarship and fundraisers have allowed have been tremendous,” Swilley Woods said. “Of the students that we have helped through the program, 80 to 90 percent are still in the industry.”
In 1990, when Mandela was snubbed by local officials, who refused to welcome him to town, very few blacks were employed in the hospitality and tourism industry and even fewer — if any — in management-related positions, Smith said. There were no black unions representing African-American wait staff or bartenders and there were no black-owned hotels.
Because the industry was “not spending money with us, we decided not to spend money with them,” Smith said. Cutting off an inflow of revenue to this industry did not hurt Miami’s black community at the time, because, Smith said, African Americans “were not benefiting from the industry.”
Two decades later, several hotels in South Florida have been owned by African-American developers, such as the Royal Palm Crowne Plaza Resort on Miami Beach, which was owned by developer R. Donahue Peebles, whom the Initiative will also recognize for his contribution to the industry at its reception.
In all, South Florida lost an estimated $100 million in tourism revenue due to the boycott, which ended in May 1993, according to Smith, whose Miami law firm served as the boycott’s unofficial headquarters during that time.
The Black Hospitality Initiative of Greater Miami will honor the following persons and organizations at its first recognition reception this Thursday:
• Stuart Blumberg, North Bay Village commissioner, former president, Greater Miami and The Beaches Hotel Association and former chairman of the Black Hospitality Initiative of Greater Miami — Distinguished Service Award
• Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management, Florida International University, Biscayne Bay Campus — Outstanding Partnership Award
• Marc O'Ferrall, owner, McDonald’s franchise — Distinguished Service Award
• Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau — Outstanding Partnership Award
• Marilyn J. Holifield, partner, Holland& Knight law firm – Tourism Pioneer Award
• R. Donahue Peebles, chairman/CEO, The Peebles Corporation — Outstanding Contribution to Tourism
• Larry Rice, vice-president and dean of Academic Affairs, Johnson & Wales University and former chairman of the Black Hospitality Initiative of Greater Miami -Distinguished Service Award
• H.T. Smith, attorney — Tourism Pioneer Award
• Steven Sonnabend, former senior vice president, Sonesta International Hotels Corporation — Tourism Pioneer Award
• Merrett R. Stierheim, former Miami-Dade county manager, former Miami-Dade County Public Schools superintendent and former president of the Greater Miami Convention & Bureau — Tourism Pioneer Award
• Jonathan Tisch, chairman/CEO, Lowes Hotel — Community Service Tourism Award
Photo: Nelson Mandela