Wednesday, April 2, 2008

A new wave of opportunities

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As John Niles stood at the D.C. Armory during the 1968 riots, he could see the smoke rising from the destroyed sections of Washington.

The D.C. National Guard physician was charged with treating riot victims in case area hospitals were overwhelmed. While his unit was never called upon, the violence — and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., which triggered it — left an indelible mark on him.

‘‘Growing up in D.C. I never had to ride in the back of the bus, but there was quasi-segregation — stores you just didn’t go in,” said the 70-year-old African American, who now lives in Glen Echo. ‘‘But I think King’s leadership, which cost him his life, helped end all that.”

Niles, who moved to Montgomery County in 1973, said the biggest difference after King was the expansion of opportunities for African Americans, especially in Niles’ field, gynecology.

When Niles graduated from college in the late 1950s, only five medical schools in the country would allow black students to study gynecology, he said.

‘‘You could be a neurosurgeon, but when it came to gynecology and obstetrics, we weren’t allowed in,” he said. ‘‘They didn’t want us looking at white women.”

Niles eventually returned to Washington to attend Howard University’s medical school, and he is still a practicing gynecologist. He said there are now ob-gyn residencies open to African-American students throughout the world.

‘‘All Martin Luther King Jr.’s efforts impacted my ability to pursue the specialty I wanted to pursue,” he said. ‘‘And I’ve delivered thousands of babies because of it.”