IN 1944, I was a 16-year-old freshman at Purdue University. If we wanted to live in West Lafayette, Ind., where the university was located, the 12 black civilian students at Purdue were forced, solely because of our color, to live in a crowded private house rather than, as most of our white classmates, in the university campus dormitories. We slept barracks-style in an unheated attic.

Our night, as the temperature was close to zero, I felt that I could take the personal indignities and denigration no longer. The United States was more than two years into World War II, a war our government had promised would "make the world safe for democracy."

Surely there was room enough in that world, I told myself that night, for 12 black students in a northern university in the United States to be given a small corner of the on-campus heated dormitories for their quarters. Perhaps all that was needed was for one of us to speak up, to make sure the administration knew exactly how a small group of its students had been treated by those charged with assigning student housing.

The next morning, I got an appointment with Edward Charles Elliot, president of Purdue University. I arrived at his office, neatly (but not elegantly) dressed, shoes polished, fingernails clean, hair cut short.

Why was it, I asked him, that blacks and blacks alone had been subjected to this special ignoring? Though there were larger issues I might have raised with the president of an American university (this was but 10 years before Brown vs. Board of Education), I had not come that morning to move mountains, only to get myself and 11 friends out of the cold.

Forcefully, but nonetheless deferentially, I put forth my limited request: that the black students of Purdue be allowed to stay in some section of the state-owned dormitories - segregated, if necessary, but at least not humiliated.

Perhaps if President Elliot had talked with me sympathetically that morning, explaining his own impotence to change things but his willingness to take up the problem with those who could, I might not have felt as I did. Perhaps if he had communicated with some word or gesture, or even a sigh, that I had caused him to review his own commitment to things as they were, I might have felt I had won some small victory.

But President Elliot, with directness and with no apparent qualms, answered, "Higginbotham, the law doesn't require us to let colored students in the dorm, and you either accept things as they are or leave the university immediately."

I reflected that afternoon on the ambiguity of the day's events. I had in the morning heard an eloquent lecture on the history of the Declaration of Independence and the genius of the founing fathers.

That afternoon, I had been told that, under the law, the black civilian students at Purdue University could be treated so differently from their 6,000 white classmates.

Yet, I knew that by nightfall hundreds of black soldiers would be injured, maimed and some even killed to make the world safe for democracy.

I knew then I had been touched in a way I had never been touched before, and that one day I would have to come back to the most disturbing element in this incident - how a legal system that proclaims "equal justice for all" could simultaneously deny even minimum dignity to a 16-year-old boy who had committed no wrong.

Today, I see an America still struggling with the problem of race, but also a nation that had made extraordinary progress since President Elliot told me to pack up and leave Purdue University if I would not accept that my having to sleep in an unheated attic was simply a matter of color.

Today, America is finally at the point where it has the potential to resolve, with positive consequences, so many of the porblems of the pasts, or else it will drift into further polarization. However, the ultimate direction in which this nation moves may well depend on how it interprets the legacy - both to its black citizens and to its white - of centuries of slavery, assured and guaranteed by the law.