Joseph McNeil was born and raised in Wilmington, NC. Soon after graduating from Williston Senior High School, McNeil's family relocated to New York, where he became accustomed a racially integrated society. He went back to the segregated South in order to attend North Carolina A&T College on a full scholarship. McNeil often cites an event on his way back to school after Christmas break as "one of the many straws on the camel's back." At the Greensboro Greyhound station, staff refused to serve him a hot dog. The shunned McNeil was sparked into action. Shortly thereafter, he and his roommate, Ezell Blair, Jr., joined Franklin McCain and David Richmond in starting the sit-in at Woolworth's in 1960. Immediately upon graduating with a degree in engineering physics, McNeil was recruited by the U.S. Air Force, where he rose to Captain during his six-year career. Throughout his career, which took him from IBM to Banker's Trust in New York City, he remained part of the Air Force Reserves and obtained the rank of Major General. Now retired, he lives with his wife, Ina Brown, and their five children in New York.