Dr. Robert B. Hayling (1929-2015)

Dr. Robert B. Hayling, an African-American dentist who played an instrumental role in the fight for civil rights in St. Augustine, died Sunday, December 20, 2015. He was 86.

Dr. Robert B. Hayling (standing) speaking at a meeting between civil rights leaders and Governor Haydon Burns. Seated in the front row (L to R) are B.J. Johnson representing Dr. Martin Luther King, Loucille Plummer of St. Augustine, and attorney John Due representing the local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (photo 1965).

Dr. Robert B. Hayling (standing) speaking at a meeting between civil rights leaders and Governor Haydon Burns. Seated in the front row (L to R) are B.J. Johnson representing Dr. Martin Luther King, Loucille Plummer of St. Augustine, and attorney John Due representing the local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (photo 1965).

Dr. Hayling grew up in Tallahassee, where his father taught at Florida A & M University. Hayling himself attended that institution, then joined the United States Air Force in 1951. After serving his tour of duty, Hayling enrolled in Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee to study dentistry. The Nashville student sit-in movement was in full swing during his time at Meharry, and the backlash against it struck close to Hayling when the windows of his dormitory were shattered by a dynamite blast directed at the home of one of his teachers across the street.

In 1960, Hayling moved to St. Augustine to begin his practice. He immediately became involved in local civil rights activism, serving as adviser to the area’s NAACP Youth Council and a local leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. St. Augustine was at that time preparing to celebrate its 400th anniversary, and African-Americans were all but excluded from many of the formal proceedings. Dr. Hayling successfully urged federal officials to insist on an integrated celebration. When Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson arrived in St. Augustine to dedicate a restored building as part of the festivities, two tables at the banquet at the Ponce de Leon Hotel were reserved for African-American guests.

The reaction from segregationists was intense. Hayling and three of his companions were beaten at a Ku Klux Klan rally in September 1963, and the dentist’s home was fired into in February 1964, killing his dog and narrowly missing his pregnant wife.

As summer vacation approached in 1964, Dr. Hayling began inviting young African-American students from around the country to visit St. Augustine and participate in the effort to break the grip of Jim Crow over local stores, restaurants, and beaches. Many students took up Hayling’s invitation and helped put St. Augustine on the front pages of newspapers all over the United States through their activism. Hayling himself was arrested on June 29, 1964 for “contributing to the delinquency” of minors – students involved in the protests.

Confrontation between segregationists and integrationists at a whites-only beach in St. Augustine (1964).

Confrontation between segregationists and integrationists at a whites-only beach in St. Augustine (1964).

Excerpt from a police blotter recording Dr. Hayling's arrest on June 29, 1964 Located in Box 130, folder 8, Farris Bryant Correspondence (S 756), State Archives of Florida.

Excerpt from a police blotter recording Dr. Hayling’s arrest on June 29, 1964. Located in Box 130, folder 8, Farris Bryant Correspondence (S 756), State Archives of Florida.

Publicity for the events in St. Augustine that summer helped bring about the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but Dr. Hayling wasn’t finished. His involvement with civil rights activism had badly damaged his dental practice, but he moved to Cocoa Beach to continue his own career and help other civil rights activists find work. He moved to Fort Lauderdale in the 1970s, where he practiced dentistry until his retirement.

Dr. Robert B. Hayling was inducted into the Florida Civil Rights Hall of Fame in 2014 along with James Weldon Johnson and A. Philip Randolph. A bronze plaque testifying to Dr. Hayling’s contributions hangs in the lobby of the Capitol.

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7 thoughts on “Dr. Robert B. Hayling (1929-2015)

  1. Aw! What a great loss! Condolences to his family.

    I attended the talk Dr. Hayling gave last year for the opening exhibit of “Civil Rights in the Sunshine State” at the Museum of Florida History here in Tallahassee. It was superb.

  2. My Uncle Robert was a true warrior, in every sense of the word. He never thought of himself, always others, always. He has definitely left our family a great legacy. We have a very loving family and he was a big part of that.

  3. My father, the late Rev. Goldie M. Eubanks worked diligently and faithfully beside Dr. Hayling as they fought for justice in St. Augustine, FL during the sixties.
    My brother Leroy and I, was pleased to be in the midst, to show our appreciation to a man well deserving of such an honor.

  4. Iam very proud to have known Dr.Hayling, I met him in St. Augustine when my Grandfather Mr Anthony Swilley passed away in 1961, he came to the house to give his condolence. assed away, He came to the house to give his condolence. M

  5. I am proud to have known Dr. Hayling,I met him in St. Augustine in 1961 when my Grandfather Mr. Anthony Swilley passed away,He came to our home to give his condolence. He also patronized my Uncle Mr. Douglas Swilley grocery store.

  6. I was priviledged to Meet Doctor Robert B. Hayling through my father Reverend Goldie M. Eubanks who assisted him during the arduous times in St. Augustine. As the song goes “We never could have made it” without him. I am so glad he took it upon himself to try and eliminate the injustices he saw in America, and in particularly, ST AUGUSTINE. In the right place at the right time. A special thanks to his family for sharing him with us.

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