Standing Up Against Racism: A Kean Oral History
Darryl Diggs was a basketball standout from Newark’s Southside High School and the first in his family to go to college when he arrived at Newark State College -- now Kean -- in 1962.
He was also the only African-American to join the men's basketball team at that time - a team that would stand up with him against racism.
In a scene reminiscent of the award-winning movie Green Book, in which a black musician and his white driver encounter open racism on a tour through the Deep South, Diggs spoke with Kean News about how he faced down racism in 1963 when the team stopped for a meal during a road trip in Maryland.
“We got off the team bus at the restaurant and went in and sat down. There were two or three tables of players,” said Diggs, now 74 and a retired teacher. “Then I noticed everybody getting their order taken except me. They skipped me.”
Diggs said he had already been booed and faced racial slurs as the only African-American on the court during the game.
At the restaurant, Diggs said he and his teammates called the waiter back to take Diggs’ order. The waiter refused, saying, ‘I can’t serve you.’”
As the incident escalated, Diggs recounted his teammates and coach William LaRusso standing by him. “Our star player said, ‘We want to order for this guy. He’s with the team; he’s with us. If you’re not going to serve him, we’re not going to eat either,'” Diggs said.
The server continued to refuse, Diggs said, and then the coach stood up. “He said, ‘OK guys, we’re getting out of here,” Diggs said. “Some people had already been served and started eating, but the whole team got up and left. We didn’t stop until we got to New Jersey. We went all the way back home to a restaurant.”
Diggs said he did not consider leaving school or the team afterward. “I was not a quitter,” he said. He said LaRusso talked with him on the bus ride back, and vowed to take the opposing team off the future schedule for Newark State.
As one of few kids from his Newark neighborhood to attend college, Diggs said he felt he had to succeed for his hometown. “I felt like a diplomat,” he said. “I felt I had to do well for the community.”
More than five decades later, Diggs, who said he was “pretty broken up” at the time of the incident, feels things are better now. He was pleased to learn about the diversity at Kean now, where approximately 60 percent of students are minorities.
“Things have definitely changed for the better,” he said.
Diggs graduated from Newark State in 1966 and now lives in Pennsylvania. He said he last spoke publicly about the Maryland incident when the 1965-66 men’s basketball team was inducted into the Kean University Athletic Hall of Fame in 2008. It was the first Newark State team to capture a New Jersey Athletic Conference Championship.
“The room was totally silent during his speech,” said his wife, Judi. “I was proud.”
Kean Director of Athletics and Recreation Jack McKiernan said while people at the induction dinner were surprised to learn of the racist incident, he said the solidarity was not surprising.
“It’s a snapshot of how society was in the not-too-distant past,” McKiernan said. “It was a very informative story, how the team handled the situation and how they banded together.
“That’s one of the things I say about college athletics, it brings people of diverse backgrounds into the same huddle. We don’t need to point out all of our differences. If we find what we have in common, and use that as our basis, we can achieve a lot.”