Two local residents were set to be inducted Friday into the National Black College Alumni Hall of Fame.
Michael Smith, general manager of the Hyatt Regency New Orleans, and former U.S. surgeon general Dr. Regina Benjamin, a faculty member at Xavier University, were among a dozen inductees to be recognized during a ceremony in Atlanta.
The organization celebrates prominent graduates of America’s historically black colleges and universities. Inclusion in the hall — which includes prominent politicians, physicians, clergy, entertainers, athletes and business leaders — is considered from hundreds of nominations that are submitted annually, then reviewed by board members and scored on a formula.
Smith, who graduated from Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina in 1979, was inducted with the organization’s chairman’s award, which marks just the second time that award has been handed out in the organization’s 30-year history.
Smith described the award as “a significant honor” and noted that it represents a culmination of his work both for the hotel chain as well as the impact of his volunteer efforts in the community.
Smith has served on a number of local boards, including the Audubon Nature Institute, New Orleans Chamber of Commerce, New Orleans Aviation Board and the planning committee for New Orleans’ tricentennial celebration in 2018.
In 2012, he helped lead a partnership between Hyatt and Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation to host a star-studded event that ultimately raised more than $5 million for building sustainable homes in the Lower 9th Ward.
Smith also played a big part in evacuating thousands of hotel guests and staff in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The downtown hotel was closed for six years in the storm’s aftermath. Smith helped lead a $285 million redevelopment of the property, which reopened in 2011.
“I’m in awe of it,” he said about the award. “It’s about a compilation of work, and it’s about trying to do your work and trying to do what you think is right.”
Thomas Dortch Jr., chairman of the National Black College Alumni Hall of Fame, said Smith is in good company: The only other person to receive the chairman’s award, he said, is distinguished author and organizer the Rev. C.T. Vivian, a leader in the civil rights movement.
Smith’s contributions to the community, Dortch said, “really crossed so many different lines that we decided that we would make him only the second recipient of the chairman’s award.”
Benjamin, who served a four-year term as surgeon general beginning in 2009, has long shown a commitment to practicing rural medicine, which Dortch said has always left him impressed
“She’s always advocated that health is a human right, that health is a civil right and that everyone in this country ought to have access to adequate health care,” he said.
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.