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Activist Ann Atwater

Photo from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Libraries

Ann Atwater was a woman to be reckoned with, a woman not to be ignored. She was a fierce fighter for rights for poor African Americans who shook up the white power establishment in Durham, N.C. in the 1960s. From then on, she demanded to be heard.

She seems an unlikely activist and hero. Born Ann George in the community of Hallsboro in Columbus County, North Carolina, she was pregnant and married at the age of 14. She moved to Durham in 1953, where her husband, William French, had relocated. He worked in the tobacco factory and she as a domestic, but he turned to drink. He moved to Richmond seeking better work and asked Atwater to join him there with their two daughters, she said no. They divorced.

When her job as a maid ended, she found herself living in a dilapidated house in North Durham on a welfare check of $57 a month. A housing organizer came by one evening to ask if she needed help to get repairs. She didn’t know you could ask for repairs. That was Howard Fuller with Operation Breakthrough, a program founded in Durham in 1964 to address poverty and inequality. He invited Atwater to a meeting and to join. She did.

The program helped people gain confidence through a series of tasks to build achievement. After the course, Atwater had found her life’s purpose. By 1967 she was employed by the United Organization for Community Improvement and was chair of the Housing Committee. She was a member of several community groups and local Democratic Party vice president in 1968. She organized protests for better housing, boycotts and educated citizens about their rights.

Atwater disliked the lack of respect many whites showed for blacks. At one school meeting, a school board member got up in the middle of a conversation as she was making demands for school improvements. Ignoring her and the parents with her was a mistake. She hit him over the head with a telephone receiver and he sat down to listen. City council members would turn their chairs away when blacks spoke. They would turn the chairs around and demand to be heard.

In 1971 Atwater was asked to co-chair a group looking for answers for the problems of desegregation of Durham Schools. The other co-chair would be C.P. Ellis, leader of the Durham Ku Klux Klan. They hated each other. Ellis told an NPR interviewer that Atwater was an effective boycotter, making progress and he hated her guts. She wrote in a column that a couple of years before that committee she nearly slit his throat at a city meeting after he repeatedly used the n-word. Her pastor was there, grabbed the hand holding a knife and stopped her.

The committee met for 12 hours daily over 10 days to find a solution for the Durham school desegregation problem, which would be binding on the city. Tensions steadily rose, but near the end the two had a change of heart. The children got them together and told them they wanted to go to school together. The two realized they had been arguing about the wrong things, that they had the same hopes for their children and a lot in common as poor people. In the end, Ellis repudiated racism and the Klan and they became lifelong friends.

That process has been portrayed in the movies, “The Best of Enemies,” and “An Unlikely Friendship,” and in the Studs Terkel book “Race: How Blacks & Whites Think & Feel about the American Obsession.”

C.P. Ellis died in 2005 and Atwater was asked to deliver the eulogy. She died in 2016 having won many awards and accolades for her work for the disadvantaged. It seems an unlikely end for a sharecropper’s daughter who had taken food from the farmer’s back door and who had internalized that she came second. She was a woman who found and used the power of her voice.



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