Melvin "Mel" Swann was born in 1936 in Alabama City, Alabama. His father joined the Army in World War II, so Swann attended schools throughout the United States and Germany during his childhood. The family later settled in Baltimore, and Swann completed high school at the St. Emma Military Academy in Rock Castle, Virginia. Afterward, Swann attended Hampton Institute, graduating in 1958 with a bachelor of science degree in biology.
Swann worked as the science instructor, health teacher, and assistant football coach in Hertford County, North Carolina, for one year before moving to Greensboro in 1960. He taught at J.C. Price Junior High School, where he also coached basketball, baseball, and football. Swann became assistant principal at Price in 1966 and principal in 1969.
When school integration was implemented in 1971, Swann was appointed to the newly-created position of director of student affairs and tasked with ensuring the process was as smooth as possible for teachers, students, and parents of all races. In this position he established student committees in each school, along with system-wide student affairs committees, and a student school board that worked with the elected school board.
In 1993, Swann became deputy director of the Guilford County School System and was appointed to lead RESPECT, a program to help teachers, students, and the community understand racial and cultural diversity. Swann retired in 1997 after 39 years with the school systems. That year he received an honorary doctorate of humanities degree from North Carolina A&T University; Swann also served A&T as a sporting event commentator. He was a member of the board of directors of the Elon Homes for Children Foundation, Inc., and chaired the Cultural Center Council of Greensboro.