Ending segregation based on race is a straightforward task, do away with the laws. I experienced this in my home, Washington DC, and in South Africa where I lived during the end of apartheid. Prejudice is a much more difficult obstacle to human relations. There are no laws to elimiate, there are no visible barriers, the barriers lie within.

My father also was born and raised in Washington. One of the most memorable events in his early life was the Ku Klux Klan march down Pennsylvania Avenue. Yes, the parade route for President Obama’s inauguration once shook and rattled to the hoofbeats of mounted Klan members. The parade featured a large coffin with the sign, “Put a nail in the coffin for the Pope.” You see the Klan was also violently opposed to the flock of dark, Catholic immigrants arriving from Italy. And here was my father, then a small, swarthy son of Italian immigrants, selling fruit crates to parade watchers to stand on for a better view.

Rudolph Valentino came to Washington while the reigning “King of Hollywood.” You may recall or have heard of this prototype “Latin Lover.” Tall, dark and handsome with smoldering eyes that made women swoon. In spite of his celebrity the reception clerk at the Sheraton Park Hotel told him that he did not have a reservation. Valentino asked to see the manager who said the same thing. The star then asked for a telephone, dialed a number and handed the phone to the manager. It was the White House. The manager put down the phone and asked, “And which room would Mr Valention like?”

Later Valentino went down to the basement to send a telegram. From the counter he asked, “May I send a telegram.” The small, dark telegraph girl turned to face him and almost expired on the spot, she was directly facing every woman’s dream man. She recovered to send the telegram. Valentino asked her how she liked the hotel. She replied she was not allowed to go upstairs to see the place. Valentino took her with him on a tour of the public rooms of the hotel. The girl was my aunt. You see the hotel did not allow Italians except to run the telegram in the celler.

As a schoolboy I was constantly asked the nationality of my surname. Whenever I said “Italian,” my questioner would immediately reply, “But you don’t look Italian.” I would then explain that while my father was the short, swarthy, Roman nosed son of Italian hillbillies, my mother was the tall, red haired, freckled daughter of hillbillies from the Blue Ridge Mountains.

I studied Italian in college in order to answer the other question always asked on learing of my ethnic heritage, “Yes, I speak Italian.” I got so tired of the reaction on learning that my surname was Italian that I took to saying that the name was Russian, Ceckinavich. Adding that my granfather, “Left the vich behind when he came to the USA.”

Another reply on learning that my name was Italian was to ask, “Are you connected to the Mafia?” I always replied, “If I was in the Mafia do you think I would be working for a living?” The question was not too far removed from my life. One of my uncles was a very successful builder. When my brother was preparing to go to college, my uncle told him to see some men who made my brother an offer that was hard to refuse. They offered to pay all the costs for him to get a law degree with the understanding he would work for them when he graduated. My brother declined the offer. When he told my uncle that he had said no, my uncle replied, “Good.”

Now I guess I could be sore about the subtle prejudice shown me or the blatant prejudice and barriers for my family. And in high school I did object to being called, “Guinea” or “Wop” or more completely, “Guinea Wop.” However, over the years I have come to accept my “ethnicity” as simply another aspect of my persona. While it may be part of the whole, it certainly does not define me.