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Ann Atwater was born in 1935 in Hallsboro, NC, and was one of nine children. Her parents were sharecroppers, and her father was also a deacon at the church. He made five cents per hour. Atwater and her siblings helped to work on the farm to support the family. She was married by the age of 13 to French Wilson, and they moved to Durham, NC, in search of better employment opportunities. Atwater had two children with Wilson. They struggled financially, and when he became alcoholic and abusive they divorced. Atwater raised her two children on her own.
In the 1960s, Atwater met Howard Fuller, who invited her to get involved in a program called Operation Breakthrough. The program was designed to help people escape poverty. Fuller helped Atwater see that the conditions of her home were unacceptable and encouraged her to confront her landlord.
Ann would later become an advocate for better housing and studied and taught Durham’s housing policies so others wouldn’t go through what she did. The activities she led and organized included sit-ins, pickets, and boycotts. Friends and colleagues from the time recalled Atwater as a “natural born leader” and “very wise.” In 1971, Ann was invited by Durham City Council to co-chair a 10-day event called “Save Our Schools.” This event was meant to find a solution to racial tension going on in schools. At this event she would meet Klansman C.P. Ellis. He was a known racist and advocate for impoverished whites in Durham. Atwater initially declined to co-chair with Ellis, but reluctantly agreed. They decided it was best to work together and put their differences aside for the cause. The two would end up finding commonalities and began working together. They both raised their children in poverty, and both believed that children in lower classes have the same potential as children in upper classes. He would find that they shared the same problems and changed his way of thinking toward African Americans
According to Ellis, Atwater was an effective leader who was not afraid to voice her opinion. By the end of the charette, Ellis ripped up his Klan card in front of the audience and gave up his leadership in the KKK. Atwater and Ellis stayed life-long friends and condition in schools improved. In 1975 Ann remarried and she would live out the rest of her life mentoring young people and activists at the School for Conversion. A book called “The Best of Enemies” written by Osha Gray Davidson tells the story of the unlikely friendship between Atwater and Ellis. It was also adapted into a movie and play. Ann Atwater died on June 20th, 2016. She was 80 years old.