We tucked into our oversized breakfast of bacon, egg, sausages - and much else - in the out- of-the-way diner in Montgomery, Alabama.
The clientele was exclusively 'white folk'. They were mostly regulars on easy first-name terms with the husband and wife owners who doubled up as waiters.
The only black person was Abby. We learned he had been with the owners "since he was a kid". As he brought food to and fro, he had the acquired deference of the put-upon and defeated. Time and tide ensured he knew his place in the accepted order of things.
During the chit-chat at our table it emerged he came from a "troubled house". And so the restaurant couple took him in, ensuring years of cheap, exploited labour. The underlying moral imperative is they were doing him a favour.
To an outsider there was an uneasy underlay as Abby - seen but unseen - went about his tasks. He remained apart from the good humoured Saturday morning banter; his steadfast features an inscrutable barrier against the world.
When in 1865 slavery was officially abolished in Alabama, a remarkable 48pc of the population was black. For the most part they were "owned" in some form or other by a white man.
Poverty has stalked this terrain many times since those days. It was especially hard hit during the 1930s Great Depression. Perhaps it's another reason why "white folk" are less than generous to the descendants of those they once exploited.
Alabama, unsurprisingly, became the epicentre of the 1960s civil rights movement; Martin Luther King famously led a mould-breaking non-violent march to the steps of the capital - Montgomery.
In the café were people who lived through those turbulent times. Back then their governor George Wallace was elected as an extreme racist. His "anti-negro" vitriol was blamed for encouraging the fanaticism which led to the bombing of a Baptist church. Four young black girls died, 22 others were injured.
For many American families, the historical discord between white and black is part of their lived experience. Instincts and emotions, prejudices and feelings, are passed from one generation to the next.
But since 1970, a growing number of the black community are closing the income divide, separating them from other sectors of the population.
For those on this side of the world, American television is a showcase for many making their mark in medicine, law, business and media.
However, there is still a vast African American underclass. Their lives have been traumatised even further by a disproportionate hit from the coronavirus.
Unprecedented investment is called for, particularly in health and education. A visitor travelling around America cannot but observe how obesity and its knock-on effects such as diabetes blight many lives.
Black children all too often attend underfunded and overcrowded schools. In some Republican-run states there is determination to reduce welfare in all its guises, lest it make recipients "over-dependant" on the state.
Meanwhile, in New York a journey to the top of Manhattan leads to an oasis of calm, privilege and opportunity. Having a cup of coffee in one of the campus cafés in Columbia University provides a visual example of social mobility in the United States.
The latest figures tell a story. White students make up almost one third of the enrolment. The figure for Asians is 12pc and Hispanics 8pc. Black and African Americans lag behind with only a 5pc presence.
But despite these obstacles there are countless examples where people of colour are forging their way to the top of American life.
Michelle Obama's roots can be traced to a six-year-old slave girl, included as a piece of property in a land owner's will.
Racism exists all over the world but in America the distant residue of mass slavery has thwarted the national mindset.
A policeman's boot, snuffling the life out of George Floyd, for millions to see on television, leaves its residue. But will the aftershock make a real difference?
Will Abby, in the Alabama diner, ever show his real face to the world?