Bermuda’s Iconic Black Builders: Sir John Swan

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If Bermuda was a monarchy, Sir John Swan would be our King. 141 Front Street would be his castle, and the well-being of his subjects would be his number one priority by a mile!

Fantasy aside, Sir John has built an impregnable legacy in Bermuda. The kind of mortar and stone bequest that even the fiercest of tempests would have tremendous trouble moving. He is a bona fide son of the soil who grew up to be King of the realm; the stuff of lore, and the mythical path of the hero.

This month we celebrate Sir John’s countless contributions to the construction and culture of the island we call home. He was a leader who tried to help people, an iconic Bermudian builder, and a self-described “Pond Dog” who conquered Front Street and beyond. This is a mere snippet of his story, in his own words.

RGMags: How did your childhood, and education, inform your development into an iconic Bermudian builder?

Sir John: I would say that I was able to become an iconic Bermudian builder simply because people cared what happened to me. I was not the best student. I had an eyesight problem; I had 30% vision in one eye, and 50% vision in the other eye, so I didn’t read until I was 12 years old. I had to struggle through school, and when I got to college I did better because I better understood how things were done.

Mr deJean, from Howard Academy, taught us that we are only limited by our own limitations, not by the limitations of others. When I got to college, I had an English Professor who said, “You’re quite capable, but you have a reading disability,” and I found out that I had dyslexia. So, I had to overcome that, and she taught me how to overcome it.

That experience made me become a much better student, and I was able to get through and finish my education. Knowing what problems I had to overcome from early childhood, and with the confidence I got from overcoming them to meet my responsibilities, allowed me to come back to Bermuda and tackle the hurdles here. Bermuda was full of prejudice, bias, and isolation. I quickly decided that there had to be a way around these obstacles because I was able to overcome my defects, so I could certainly get over these!

It took me five years to get a job. When I finally got a job in a real estate company, I quickly realized that the sellers were mostly white and the buyers were mostly black, so I had to figure out how to marry the two together without causing problems.

The whites would be ostracized by their own fellow man for selling to blacks, and I had to figure out how to give blacks the confidence to go out and buy; and also, how to help them find money to buy property with. So, I became the preeminent real estate salesman, until I opened my own business in 1962. From 1965 to 1975, I built 40% of homes on the island, of which, as much as 95% went to house black families.

I never had a business degree – I have a bachelor’s degree – but I was managing 18 contractors. All of my people knew exactly what they had to do, and we were building homes. I recognized that people were not being properly housed; how can you educate your children when the kids have to be in the room with the television on, or have to be in the room with their parents trying to talk to each other? People needed decent housing; they needed peace, and a decent place to sleep at night. Parents needed a decent place to raise their children, and I recognized this need early on.

RGM: What are your thoughts on the current Bermuda education system when it comes to practical and technical abilities in our students?

SJ: Being non-academic, you don’t read, write, or think about the old. Education should embrace greater freedom of thought, and the way is through technology. Educators are so busy trying to teach people the way they were educated; we watch it every day in classrooms. It’s very frustrating, and they frustrate people because people today are tuned in to technology. But they take away from that, and they say you’ve got to pass this exam, you’ve got to take a traditional English class, and, just like that, they kill the spirit of the individual. What about the spirit? It’s all about the energy, the spirit, and the vibrations of the individual, and not about what people think it is.

RGMags: What do you think of the condition of the modern black Bermudian youth?

SJ: If people think that my heart isn’t hurting – they don’t know how much my heart hurts – because I don’t see how we have really done justice for our young people and future generations. I think we’re taking away the young generation’s future by our actions. When somebody is coming up to school age you tell them, “Get an education,” – that there’s a promise of a future, but at the same time you’re stripping their future away by your actions; it’s fraudulent! That’s where we are at; a stage where it is absolutely fraudulent what’s taking place.

We blame the Police Service daily, but you can’t blame the Police Service. It starts at the top and it filters down, and when it gets down to young people who, whether they use guns, or whether they use knives, or whether they use their physical being; if it never happened before you have to ask yourself:

“Why is it happening now?”

Don’t tell me it’s happening now because we haven’t trained them well – we haven’t brought them into the spirit of the country! We have excluded them from the collective spirit. Once you’re excluded from the spirit of your country, it’s like you’re excluded from the spirit of your family. Like you go home to your family and nobody wants to even talk to you, so you feel like you’re not wanted. After a while you feel uncomfortable, and after some more time, when somebody says something to you, you bark at them. That’s what we’re doing when the spirit at the top goes. We’re supposed to be lifting people up, but we’re not.

RGM: What are your feelings on being a fabulously successful black Bermudian?

SJ: Being black is what I am, and I will never deny it. Being successful is determined by how I apply myself. I don’t see black or white in my objectives; I see my responsibility to make things work, and not just for me, but for others, and therefore my efforts are always inclusive.

I always work for all of Bermuda. I’m not going to say because somebody is white that they’re better or worse. If you prefer to accept somebody living in the Caribbean as a part of you, that happens to be black, you should be able to accept somebody that’s white who is living in Bermuda. You can’t tell me that because their grandfather, or great grandfather did something that your grandparents, your great grandparents were affected by that you should condemn them! How you do that I’m not sure; and the end result is we have this divide that has to be closed.

It may be politically expedient for some people to keep the divide opened, but look at the price we’re paying; the price we’re paying is awful! I am mad about what these people have done to this country!

RGM: What is your historical legacy in Bermuda?

SJ: With the support of others, I became who I am. Therefore, I am a hybrid of what Bermuda is, and, hopefully, what it can become in time. The Swan Building, our first building on Victoria Street, was a statement of the possibilities of Bermuda. 141 Front Street is our last building, and it is also a statement of possibilities for Bermuda, and what the collective human endeavor represents. Both buildings were a statement about Bermuda.

I’ve tried to do things the right way all the time. So, naturally, I do the same thing when I go out of Bermuda. I try to represent Bermuda in my appearance and in my deportment. The discouraging part about it is that we have lost our international relationships, and I don’t see anybody doing anything about it!

I mean, you can run off to Switzerland to some Fintech conference, but I’m talking about what’s going on in London, what’s going on in Washington; that’s what affects Bermuda, you know. When I was in office, I had Secretaries of State from all our biggest allies visiting Bermuda. I had Presidents of the United States, Prime Ministers of England, The Queen, and many others, and all of them held this little jewel in the Atlantic Ocean in high esteem.

RGM: There are people out there who would doubt your credentials as a black Bermudian hero, what would you say to them?

SJ: I’ve always worked to be fair to everybody. When I left being Premier, we had built up a big middle class. Now if there’s been a deterioration since then, don’t point a finger at me! Take a look at the people who have been running the country since I left, and that was from 1995 to 2022 – so that’s been 27 years that the country has been run by others. They have let the country go back. They have lost international relationships, and they have even lost the spirit of the country when it comes to people really working towards making sure that everybody gets a real piece of the pie.

When I was around there were more black businesses, there were more black scholarships, people going off to school, there was more cash available, and so forth. There were more black people sitting on boards; I think if you look now, so few blacks are on those public boards.

So, you know, it’s easy to point the finger. I’m an opportunistic social capitalist; I’m a capitalist with a social conscience. So, I always believed the fact that, in a capitalist world, which we live in – driven by North America and Britain – that you need to have income in order to build and evolve. You can’t have these idealistic ideas promising people the world and not delivering. I always believe the fact that, when you told people something, you did your best to deliver. I tried to deliver on what I promised.

Now you have people who are making promises to deliver but don’t have the money, and – in fact – don’t even have the ideas on how to deliver! All I can say to people is look in the mirror and ask yourself: “What have I done?” I’m not here to tell people how they should think or try to justify who I am, or what I am; time will judge me as to what I did. I am not at all embarrassed, or feel sorry, or feel ashamed of what I did. I did what I did in the times I lived, trying to be fair to all; black or white, rich or poor. I tried to build a partnership, and I can tell you the partnership worked a lot better back then than it is working today. Also, it worked a lot better than when it did under my predecessors as well, and that’s why people kept me in office for so long!

Most people don’t know how much I’ve helped some of the Bermudian institutions who have stood against me in the political arena over the years. I funded the Union, I funded the PLP to help them buy their Headquarters, I funded the BPSA to buy their Headquarters too. So, as you can see, I’ve tried to be fair to all who needed help, regardless of political affiliation.

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