Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a time to reflect on racism and prejudice. Today I write about the former, tomorrow I will address the latter.

Many people don’t realize that prior to 1960 Washington DC was a totally segregated city. Seperate public schools for blacks and whites was ended in 1955, but seperate facilities were still the norm for almost all other activities. Places to dine, drink, watch films, be entertained, get a hair cut, be buried, see a doctor, and more were racially divided. And this was the capital of the nation.

And segregation was the norm in the work place as well. Imagine not seeing a single black face when entering a federal government building. Blacks were generally confined to jobs that kept them out of sight. I worked parttime at a grocery store whose clients were at least 80% black, but we had only one black on the staff.

About the only place blacks and whites met was when they shopped. Most stores colored all clients “green” so did not discriminate. However, there were the shops that specialized in catering to blacks. I recall one day coming out of a shop on 7th Street that had a phalanx of shops owned by whites, but selling mainly to blacks. As far as I could see in either direction, I was the only while face in a sea of blacks.

The meeting of blacks and whites in this commercial environment had one lighter moment. I had an uncle who opened a bar and restaurant on North Capitol Street in DC named the “Sugar Bowl.” Its clientele were all blacks and it was a lively place. In spite of its humble status, it was an early forerunner of “fusion cuisine.” Another uncle was the cook who combined “soul food” and “Italian cuisine” in what became the dive’s favoriite dish, “chittlin’s cacciatore.” I could but wonder how anyone could face a dish that had hog intestines swimming in tomato sauce.

The only other place where blacks and whites met that I knew was my church. My little Catholic church in an othewise totally segrregated community had black members in the congregation. While they could sit wherever they wanted, and did, most sat in the back.

I grew up in this segregated society and was imbued with all the facile rationales for the situation. “They prefer being with their own,” was probably the most insidious of these. When I entered the Univesity of Maryland it was segregated but by the time I graduated there was a handfull of blacks at the school, and no, they were not the basketball team, which was still completely white.

All of this abruptly changed when I left college for the Peace Corps. Here I was training with blacks as well as whites at Georgetown University, a Catholic school that had allowed black students in long before they got to Maryland. There I was with my black colleagues learning to save lives in a swimming pool that only five years earlier had only allowed whites, including me.

Of course the big change was when we went to Africa to do service. Yes, I had lived among blacks in DC, so Africa was not that different. But here all had to live together. I shared a house with two other PCVs, one black. Having grown up in a segregated community I guess I should have been confused, but in all honesty I found myself completely at home. While I had been raised with segregation, I had also been raised with blacks all around me, so did not find my new home so alien.

Two decades after I left my Peace Corps job in Ethiopia I found myself in Johannesburg, South Africa enforcing the Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 which I had also helped write. Here was a country rapidly breaking down rigid racial barriers that had been in place for years. Apartheid was coming to a crashing end.

I made myself at home in Johannesburg and quickly got into the flux of the situation. So quickly that my new black and white friends would ask, “Leo you seem to understand what is going on and adjust to it quickly,” or similar questions. I simply responded, “For me, its deja vu.”