His story begins in 1946. A young man from Yonkers, Joseph Nearon was one of just a few Black men to enroll at Manhattan College — an opportunity he received thanks to an intercultural concert that raised funds for Black high school students like him to attend college.
Nearon didn’t even have time to get acclimated to his new surroundings. Out of nowhere, he was joining every school club he could, and led the push to integrate the National Association for Intercollegiate Basketball — a forerunner to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics — as well as student government, his classmates, and even Catholicism itself
In fact, the more someone might learn about Joseph Nearon, the more they would be convinced he’s required reading at Manhattan College of the 21st century. Instead, Nearon was far from anyone’s mind. That is until a religious studies professor happened upon his work.
“This is really interesting,” Kevin Ahern said, after coming across some of Nearon’s papers. “He’s a Manhattan College student. And I had no idea.”
There may not have been many Black students walking around Manhattan College back in those days, but Nearon wasn’t interested in staying quiet, hiding in the background. Instead, he helped form a group on campus called the Interracial Justice Society. Its mission? To find connections between the Black and white communities, erase racial disparities, create a greater understanding of the Jewish community, and use all of that to combat anti-Semitism and racism.
Which brings everything back to the NAIB, where everything seemed to be sliding downhill. One of the association’s premier teams, the Indiana State Sycamores, refused to participate in its postseason tournaments because one of its stars, Clarence Walker, was Black.
Kansas City, which hosted the tournament that year, may have been hundreds of miles away, but it was racism that was too close to home for Joseph Nearon. The Jaspers basketball team was heading to Albany to take on Siena College, but the sophomore up-and-comer organized a boycott of the game.
The ripple effects were felt almost instantly, and within months, not only was Walker and the Sycamores playing in the NAIB tournament, they were going for it all — stopped only by the Louisville Cardinals, led by Peck Hickman, which helped put Kentucky on the national collegiate stage.
Nearon believed if schools like Manhattan College could be integrated, then so could sports. It wouldn’t be long before the Jaspers themselves welcomed Junius Kellogg as its first African American hoops player — an opportunity Kellogg may never had had without the efforts of people like Joseph Nearon.
Kellogg would make his own mark in history, exposing a collegiate points-shaving scandal that ultimately tarnished City College’s NCAA championship in 1950. Kellogg would later play with the Harlem Globetrotters, before a car accident in 1954 left him paralyzed. He spent the rest of his life advocating parasports.
“Nearon is one of many students who have contributed to social change that we don’t know about,” Ahern said. “We have to have to find those names and celebrate those students.”
Another one of those names is Fritz Pollard. Although he’s not directly associated with Manhattan College, Pollard broke the color barrier in 1921 as the NFL’s first African American coach of a team known as the Akron Pros. Yet, a few years later, the NFL was devoid of any Black coaches or players, and it would take 68 years for the league to welcome its second Black coach when Art Shell took over the then-Los Angeles Raiders.
But even as a coach, life wasn’t easy for Pollard. Sure, he no longer had to fear an intentional maiming as a player, but Pollard still faced discrimination and segregation, just like nearly every other person of color in the United States.
Pollard couldn’t even share a locker room, and more often than not, had to fend for himself for dinner, since he couldn’t visit the same restaurants members of his team did.
Nearon never ended up in sports himself, but he would become a celebrated scholar and theologian. After earning his undergraduate degree from Manhattan College, he was sent to Rome, returning with a doctorate.
It essentially made Nearon a minority within a minority group, especially since white Catholics did not readily accept African American priests at the time, Ahern said. Nearon believed, however, that by being a leader, he could help the church come to terms with racism, and grow Black Catholicism throughout the country.
Yet, there was a point when he was the only Black Catholic theologian in the United States. That number remained small when Nearon died in 1984, but had grown to 10. In fact, three of them even came to his funeral, which lasted well over two hours. Newspaper reports at the time praised how righteous of a man Nearon was,
“He was an architect of all Black Catholic organizations,” said Bishop Francis Cosa, in his homily at the time. “He loved people. And loved to be with people.”