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Ann Atwater

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Civil rights activist

Willie Pettiford

Ann Atwater

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July 1, 1935 (age 88) (

Durham nc teens interview ann atwater a local civil rights activist

Ann Atwater (July 1, 1935 – June 20, 2016) was an American civil rights activist in Durham, North Carolina. Throughout her career she helped improve the quality of life in Durham through programs like Operation Breakthrough (Durham, North Carolina), a community organization dedicated to fight the War on Poverty. Her loud, demanding, and assertive personality enabled her to be an effective activist and leader when advocating for black rights, such as better private housing. Atwater promoted unity of the working-class African Americans through grassroots organizations.


Ann Atwater Ann Atwater Durham Civil Rights Activist Dies At 80 WUNC

She is best known for co-leading a charrette in 1971 to reduce school violence and ensure peaceful school desegregation, which met for ten sessions. She showed that it was possible for whites and blacks, even with contradictory views, to negotiate and collaborate by establishing some common ground.

Civil rights activist ann atwater w spence clark n

Early life

Ann Atwater was born in 1935 in Hallsboro, North Carolina as one of ten children to parents who were sharecroppers; her father was also a deacon of the church. Her father earned only five cents an hour; Ann and her siblings also worked on farms as children to help support the family. In the documentary An Unlikely Friendship, Atwater recalled that while working on a white owner’s farm, she was given food only through the back door and after the white workers had eaten. She was taught that whites were better and that their needs came before hers. She learned to take second place.

After marrying at the age of thirteen to French Wilson, Ann and her husband moved from the countryside to Durham in hopes of better job opportunities, as the city had large tobacco and textile industries. At the time, Durham had a fairly large black population, with a considerable portion of educated, middle-class blacks in addition to white residents and poor blacks. Poverty was still a problem in the segregated society; 28% of families lived below the designated poverty line of $3000 in 1950. The poor blacks of Durham had to fight both racial and class divisions: one against the whites who claimed superiority and another against the wealthier blacks who did not want to associate themselves with the lower class. Such struggles helped shape Atwater as an activist. Durham's prosperous black business sector made the city a beacon of hope for African Americans seeking to rise through self-help.

But, Atwater’s husband struggled financially, becoming alcoholic and abusive. Eventually Atwater divorced him and raised their two daughters on her own as a single mother. She survived on $57 a month from a welfare check, struggling to pay rent as she gained only occasional domestic work in white homes. She made dresses out of flour and rice bags for her daughters to wear. The only foods she could afford to feed her children were rice, cabbage, and fatback. The faucets in the bathroom would shoot out water so intensely that her kids nicknamed it “Niagara Falls”. The roof of her house was full of holes, the bathtub had fallen through the floor, and “the house was so poorly wired that when the man cut off [her] lights for nonpayment, [she] could stomp on the floor and the lights would come on and [she’d] stomp on the floor and they’d go off”. She joked in a later interview that the house didn’t need windows because she could see everyone on the streets through the cracks in the wall.

Operation Breakthrough

When approached by Howard Fuller to join Operation Breakthrough, a program to help people escape poverty, Atwater found her life purpose. Operation Breakthrough helped people define and accomplish a series of tasks to build a pattern of achievement. It helped participants gain confidence that they could escape poverty and achieve change. People worked at job-training, took after-school tutoring, or became educated as to their rights. It was funded by the North Carolina Fund, a statewide program to improve education. Fuller met with each resident enrolled in Operation Breakthrough, getting to know them personally and helping identify issues to be fixed. Fuller would introduce himself to residents and get to know them personally in order to identify what the residents thought were issues that needed to be fixed. Many people were skeptical about Operation Breakthrough because they had been poor for so long, they would ask questions such as “Would life really be better? It hadn’t changed in all these years, why would it change now?”

One day when Atwater went to the welfare office to see if she could get $100 to pay her overdue rent and avoid eviction, she happened to meet Fuller. She showed him her house and he invited her to his program. The next day Atwater and Fuller went to Atwater’s landlord to demand repairs for her house and to Atwater’s surprise, her landlord agreed to fix some of her housing issues. To her knowledge, making demands from a landlord was unheard of and she had no idea that she had the right to do so. Afterward she attended the Operation Breakthrough meeting and discussed how the poor had to work together to get the government’s attention to help solve poverty and what kind of concerns she had. That first Operation Breakthrough meeting marked the start of her involvement in helping the poor black community fight poverty.

Gradually Atwater became a leader among the participants in Operation Breakthrough meetings. She represented poor people with housing problems and would go door-to-door telling others of her previous housing problems and how she was able to resolve them. She became an expert on housing policies, and copied and handed out welfare regulation manuals so people could learn their rights, such as being able to address their landlord about the conditions of their houses. Atwater mobilized poor blacks in Durham to help them stand up for themselves. Her goal was to teach the people the necessary skills to survive.

Atwater fought against was the lack of respect that many whites showed blacks. She knew that welfare workers were guilty of this. For example, when addressing a white person, the welfare worker could politely call them over to the desk to privately ask “Your name? Your address?” When addressing black people the workers would holler at them across the room, “What you here for?” embarrassing the black client who was forced to explain their private issues in front of a room full of strangers. One tactic Atwater used to tackle this problem was power in numbers.

In order to change how the welfare workers operated, she organized groups of women who visited the offices frequently and pushed for change. With her persistence, the office set up private booths for meetings with clients; these are still in use today.

Involvement in Durham charrette

In July 1971, Durham schools suffered from increasing racial tensions. Despite the 1954 US Supreme Court ruling that segregated schools were unconstitutional, and 1960s federal civil rights legislation, the schools were still segregated. The Durham district court had just ordered desegregation of schools, an action opposed by many residents.

Students were getting into fights at schools over the issue. To manage the transition to racial integration, councilman Bill Riddick called a charrette. Those collaborative process involved ten days of town meetings to resolve issues related to implementation of the court order. Riddick recruited participants from all sectors of Durham, and invited Atwater to co-lead the charrette with C. P. Ellis, the Exalted Grand Cyclops of the Durham Ku Klux Klan at the time. Ellis regularly attended city council meetings, school board meetings, and county meetings to oppose civil rights and its activists. When Atwater had first met C. P. Ellis at a previous Durham city council meeting, she felt great resentment toward him. Ellis was known for making provocative and inaccurate remarks expressing his fears and resentments of blacks, such as: “Blacks are taking over the city. They got all the good jobs and you’re all sittin’ here letting ‘em do it” and said that black people should stay on the other side of the railroad because they had no business in town. Atwater initially declined to serve as co-chair, but reluctantly agreed to work with Ellis. He had similar feelings, saying, "It was impossible. How could I work with her?

Atwater and Ellis came to realize some commonalities, among them that their children were ostracized because of the parents' working together. They wanted their children to attend schools free of violence. Ellis later said,

“Here we are, two people from the far end of the fence, having identical problems, except her being black and me being white…The amazing thing about it, her and I, up to that point, [had] cussed each other, bawled each other, we hated each other. Up to that point, we didn’t know each other. We didn’t know we had things in common.”

They talked about the hardships of raising children in poverty, and their efforts to emphasize their potential being equal to that of middle-class children.

The two antagonists eventually learned to work together and, to everyone’s astonishment, became good friends. Moving past race, they began to focus on the other issues, such as the academic quality of Durham’s schools. Ellis came to realize that blacks were not suppressing poor whites, and that the two groups shared problems. Atwater had made Ellis begin to question his way of thinking towards blacks. By the end of the charrette, Ellis gave up his leadership in the KKK.

By the end of the charrette, Atwater and Ellis presented the School Board with a list of recommendations, including giving students a larger say on education issues by expanding the board to include two students each of the major racial groups. They also proposed major changes in the school curriculum such as more instruction on dealing with racial violence, creation of a group to discuss and resolve problems before they escalated, and expansion in choices of textbooks to include African-American authors.

Personality in connection with political career

According to C.P. Ellis, Ann Atwater had a bold and strong personality. Her voice was deep and powerful and had the ability to energize her audience. These personality traits allowed her to be the effective leader she was. She was not afraid to voice her opinions loudly and proudly. She was also not afraid to tell anyone to “go to hell if she felt like it. She realized that the most effective method at getting people to listen to her was to “holler at them” When she called a meeting she meant business. In one meeting with a councilman, Atwater recalls that when he was not taking her seriously as she was trying to make her points, she would hit him on the head, surprising him so much that he would listen to her afterwards. In other situations like city council meetings, Atwater would express her opinions but the councilmen would not want to listen to a black women talk, so they would turn their chairs away from her. In response she would turn those chairs back around herself so they would face her. Her bold actions surprised many of the councilmen to the point that they had to listen to her. Some people may not have liked how demanding and outspoken she was, but those qualities enabled her to be the successful activist she was.

Later life

After Atwater co-led the charrette, she continued to work with the poor and middle-class black community in Durham. She married Willie Pettiford in 1975, and became a deacon at the Mount Calvary United Church of Christ.

Atwater died June 20, 2016.


Ann Atwater Wikipedia