Father Joseph Nearon ’50, SSS: A Leader Among Black Catholics

Nearon was a pioneer in early integration efforts surrounding intercollegiate athletics, student government and Catholicism.

Yearbook photo of Joseph NearonYears before Brown vs. Board of Education, and more than a decade before the Civil Rights Act, Father Joseph Nearon ’50, SSS, was a young man who became a leading advocate for integration efforts across the country.

It was March 1946. Joseph Nearon was growing up in Yonkers, New York, and was in his senior year at Manhattan Prep. Nine years earlier, the National Federation of Catholic College Students (NFCCS) had been founded, and its first president was a Manhattan College student: Robert Becker ’38.

That month, the NFCCS hosted an intercultural concert, the culmination of what was called its Interracial Justice Week. The concert’s goal was to raise funds for Black high school students to attend college. The first recipient of the NFCCS scholarship was Joseph Nearon, who subsequently enrolled at Manhattan College.

As an undergraduate, Nearon quickly became involved in the National Federation of Catholic College Students and other social justice organizations on campus, including the National Students Association, a partner group to the NFCCS and the Interracial Justice Society.

The Interracial Justice Society c 1950In the 1950 version of the Manhattanite, the college’s yearbook, the society describes itself as an organization that “seeks to destroy bigotry and racial injustice and to realize a unity and cooperation among all races under God.” Pictured in the middle of the group is Joseph Nearon.

“He was one of those students who was involved in everything – an officer in many different clubs on campus,” said Kevin Ahern, Ph.D., an associate professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, who has been researching Nearon’s advocacy and faith.

Advocating for Integration of College Basketball
In 1948, when Nearon was a sophomore, he was part of a group at Manhattan College that partnered with students at Siena College to push for the integration of the National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball (NAIB) tournament. The precursor to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), the NAIB would not let Indiana State student Clarence Walker, a Black man, play in the 1947 tournament under famed basketball coach John Wooden.

A year later, with both Manhattan and Siena set to play in the tournament, Nearon and his counterparts pushed the leadership at both colleges to boycott the tournament. Both colleges’ administrations stood with the students and successfully cleared a path for integration. The 1948 NAIB Tournament was the first intercollegiate postseason basketball tournament to allow a Black player to compete.

A 1948 report from the NFCCS interracial justice commission saluted the group, saying, “Manhattan and Siena Colleges deserve credit for the vigilance and courage which they showed in securing this victory.”

His Legacy after Manhattan
In 1950, Nearon became involved in the leadership of the Joint Committee for Student Action, a coordinating body created by the NFCCS and the National Newman Club Federation to coordinate the common voice of Catholic students across the country.

Nearon remained an advocate for the Catholic faith after graduating from Manhattan College in 1950 with a degree in philosophy. He soon began his studies for the priesthood through the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament and later received a doctorate degree at the Gregorian University in Rome.

In 1959, Nearon, now a priest, was assigned to Cleveland, Ohio, to teach at St. Joseph Seminary. He later joined the religious studies faculty at John Carroll University, and from 1969 through 1976, served as the department chairman. Nearon was the first Black member of the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA), delivering one of the plenary addresses to the CTSA in 1975. In 1978, he became superior of the Cleveland Blessed Sacrament community.

Headshot of Father Joseph Nearon c 1981

Photo courtesy of Xavier University of Louisiana.

In 1981, Nearon was assigned to teach at a seminary in Liberia, but his stay was shortened by illness, and he returned to the United States. He soon joined the faculty of Xavier University in New Orleans. There, he helped found the Institute of Black Catholic Studies, and spent the last three years of his life devoted to issues concerning Black Catholics, up until he died in 1984.

“We all deeply loved Joe, who was the ultimate architect of all Black Catholic organizations,” said Bishop James Lyke at Nearon’s funeral. “Joe taught us all. He was to the Church a Black theologian and has left a path for all of us to follow.”

“He was a pioneering voice in Black Catholic Studies,” said Ahern. “What he learned and what he was involved in at Manhattan College bore fruit in several different ways for Black Catholics.”

A man ahead of his time, Nearon left behind a legacy of integration and advocacy that is as relevant now as it was nearly 75 years ago. His work continues.

By Pete McHugh