Robert Swain, oral surgeon, civil rights pioneer, dies

Published Aug. 30, 1996|Updated Sep. 16, 2005

Dr. Robert J. "Bob" Swain Jr., a pioneering oral surgeon who led drives to break down racial segregation barriers for black Major League Baseball stars, has died at age 77.

Dr. Swain, whose practice was at 2100 Dr. M. L. King (Ninth) St. S, died Wednesday (Aug. 28, 1996) at Bayfront Medical Center. He collapsed as he was leaving his home for his office, said his wife, Velma. She said she did not know the cause of his death.

In practice here since 1947, he made his mark in the 1950s by becoming the first black dentist to build a clinic. Next door to the clinic at 1501 22nd St. S, he built a six-unit apartment that has been called an unlikely shrine to civil rights and to Major League Baseball.

"It was an exciting time," Dr. Swain said in an interview published in May. "There was a lot to get done. We had fun."

For a time in the 1950s and the early 1960s, the boxy, two-story building housed for about six weeks each spring black players for the New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals _ stars like Bob Gibson and Elston Howard, destined to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, and Bill White, the future president of the National League.

To foes of segregation, it was the front lines in the fight against sweeping Jim Crow laws. According to newspaper accounts of the day, black residents often found themselves unable to build or live south of an imaginary line that ran down the center of 15th Avenue S. A mayoral task force had determined that boundary.

Unaware of that constraint, Dr. Swain bought two empty lots about 25 feet south of the centerline of 15th Avenue S for his clinic and the apartment building.

When he applied for the needed construction permits, the city refused to issue them. After battling for months, Dr. Swain forced the city to issue the permits by threatening to sue for violation of his civil rights.

By 1960, Dr. Swain and two friends, C. Bette Wimbish, a lawyer who later served on the City Council, and her husband, Dr. Ralph Wimbish, a prominent physician, and the local NAACP leadership took aim at the city's accommodation to segregation.

As the spring-training season was ending, "We told the players that next year we wouldn't be taking them," Dr. Swain said in the interview. "We said it wasn't right that they not stay with the rest of the team, and they agreed with us."

In February 1961, the group announced that it would not help the teams find living space for their black players. When managers of the old Soreno Hotel, where the Yankees stayed, refused to let black players move in, the team found motel space at the beach. The Cardinals also found space outside the downtown area.

As for the Yankees, they moved to Fort Lauderdale. Segregation's grip there was not nearly as tight.

"We felt that if the players were good enough to play on the team, then they were good enough to stay with the rest of the players," Dr. Swain said. "They needed to be together, because there was no other way to discuss the day's events, or share information. It just wasn't right."

Dr. Swain, who sold the apartment in 1975, said he had no regrets about his push to break down segregation. But it cost him. He lost the $650 in weekly rental fees he had once commanded from the teams. And within two years, integration cost him his Robert James Hotel, with its big restaurant and nightclub business on a site roughly where the Jamestown housing complex is now.

During segregation, which limited black residents' choices in accommodations and entertainment, those business thrived.

A further financial setback, unrelated to his fight against segregation, came in March 1965. A federal grand jury indicted him on three counts of income tax evasion. He was accused of evading a total of $13,163 in taxes in 1958, 1959 and 1961. He pleaded guilty to one count; the other two were dismissed. He was sentenced to three months in jail and 15 months of probation.

Born in St. Petersburg, Robert James Swain Jr. graduated from Gibbs High School, Florida A&M University and Howard University School of Dentistry.

He was an Army veteran of World War II and the Florida National Guard and retired as a major. He was a member of Mount Zion Progressive Baptist Church, Omega Psi Phi and the Ambassadors.

In addition to his wife of 10 years, survivors include six sons, Robert J. III, Tallahassee, William S., St. Petersburg, Merrick Mitchell, Houston, Steve Young, Tampa, Michael Morgan, Perry, and Dedrick Mitchell, St. Petersburg; five daughters, Lynette, Shana, and Jessica Swain, all of St. Petersburg, Tonya Forehand, Lakeland, and Kimberly Simons, Minneapolis; two brothers, Percell E., St. Petersburg, and Dr. James R. Henderson, Jacksonville; a sister, Eloise Christian, St. Petersburg; and six grandchildren.

McRae Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.

_ Information from Times files was used in this obituary.