Ann Atwater

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Ann Atwater
Born (1935-07-01)July 1, 1935
Hallsboro, North Carolina, US
Spouse(s) Willie Pettiford

Ann Atwater (born July 1, 1935) is a prominent black 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. Ann Atwater also promoted unity of the working-class African Americans through grassroots organizations. However, she is most well known for co-leading the charrette in 1971, a series of ten intense meetings held to plan to reduce school violence and ensure peaceful school desegregation by opening lines of communication within the community. By befriending and working effectively with Ku Klux Klan leader C.P. Ellis during the charrette, Atwater showed that it was possible for whites and blacks, even when they had contradictory views on race relations, to negotiate and collaborate if they could establish some common ground upon which to agree.

Early life[edit]

Ann Atwater was born in Hallsboro, North Carolina with a father who was a deacon of the church. She had a poor upbringing because her father, who only earned five cents an hour, had to support Atwater and nine other siblings. She and her siblings would work on their family’s own sharecropper farm and other farms in order to make a little more money.[1] In the documentary “An Unlikely Friendship,” Atwater recalled that while working on a white owner’s farm, she could only get food through the back door after the white workers had eaten. Throughout her life, she was taught to believe that whites were better and that their needs came before hers. As a result, she developed the mentality that she was inferior and could not stand up for herself.[2] After marrying at the age of thirteen to French Wilson, she and her husband moved from the countryside to Durham in hopes of better job opportunities in a city that had a large tobacco and textile industry.

At the time, Durham had a fairly large black population. What made Durham unique to other towns was that it had middle class blacks in addition to white residents and poor blacks. Although there was a solid black middle class in Durham, 28% of families still lived below the designated poverty line of $3000. In times when blacks had to fight the oppression imposed on them by whites, the poor blacks of Durham had to fight two battles, one against the whites who were raised to believe they were better, and the wealthier blacks who did not want to associate themselves with lower class blacks. There was not only a race division, but also a class division. These struggles that Atwater faced in her early life helped shape the political activist she later became. Because Durham had a prosperous black business sector, Durham had became a beacon of hope for African Americans who sought success through self-help. However without achieving much personal financial success, Atwater’s husband turned to alcoholism and abuse. Eventually Atwater divorced him and raised her two daughters on her own as a single mother. She survived on $57 a month from a welfare check, and oftentimes she struggled to pay the rent because she had no consistent job other than the occasional domestic work in white homes. She was so impoverished that 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.[3] Most surprising was her description of her housing condition. The faucets in the bathroom would shoot out water so intensely that her kids nicknamed it “Niagara Falls”.[4] 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”.[5] She also joked that the house didn’t need windows because she could see everyone on the streets through the cracks in the wall.[6]

Operation Breakthrough[edit]

Ann Atwater had firsthand knowledge of what it felt like to be a poor black in Durham. When she was approached by Howard Fuller to join Operation Breakthrough, a program to help people escape poverty, she saw it as a start to give her life purpose. The purpose of Operation Breakthrough was to accomplish tasks that may have been small, but were visible enough to give poor people confidence that they could escape poverty and that change could happen. Tasks included giving people job-training, providing after-school tutoring, or educating people on what their rights were. The North Carolina Fund, a statewide program to fight poverty and improve education, funded Operation Breakthrough. Howard Fuller, the man in charge of Operation Breakthrough 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?”[7]

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 who asked what kind of problems she was having. After showing Fuller the poor state of her house, Atwater was asked to come to an Operation Breakthrough meeting and in return Fuller would help Atwater with her rent. 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.[8] Afterwards 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.[9]

As she continued to attend Operation Breakthrough meetings, she became a leader of the organization. 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 even copied and handed out welfare regulation manuals so people would know their rights, like being able to address their landlord about the conditions of their houses.[10] Atwater mobilized poor blacks in Durham that used to stand on the sidelines and organized them so they could stand up for themselves. Her goal was to teach the people the necessary skills to survive.

One of the problems Atwater fought against was the lack of respect that whites showed blacks. Atwater personally knew how poorly welfare workers treated their clients. 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 the way of 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 its clients that still stand today.[11]

Involvement in Durham charrette[edit]

In July 1971, Durham schools reached a peak of racial tensions among students, resulting in increased violence and the need to resolve that violence. The Durham court had just ordered desegregation of schools, which many people expressed strong feelings against. As a result, the children would get into fights at school. In order to help the transition to racial integration run more smoothly and occur without unnecessary violence, councilman Bill Riddick called a charrette. The charrette was an intense ten-day town meeting with the purpose of resolving any issues concerning the implementation of school desegregation.[12] Bill wanted to recruit a microcosm of the Durham community in order to represent all the possible viewpoints on the issue. Because Atwater was already such a prominent figure of Durham known for fighting for black rights, he picked Atwater to co-lead the charrette with C.P. Ellis. C.P. Ellis was the Exalted Grand Cyclops of the Durham KKK at the time. C.P. Ellis regularly attended city council meetings, school board meetings, and county meetings to oppose civil rights activists like Atwater. When Atwater first met C.P. Ellis at a previous Durham city council meeting, she felt great resentment towards him. C.P. Ellis would stand up to say statements 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 that black people should stay on the other side of the railroad because they had no business in town.5 Atwater became so enraged upon hearing this that she pulled out her pocketknife. However her friends held her back, telling her that was exactly what C.P. Ellis and the rest of the KKK members at the meeting wanted her to do. Because of her feelings of animosity towards C.P. Ellis, she initially declined to serve as co-chair, but realizing that someone needed to act as a spokesperson for the blacks needs, she reluctantly agreed to work with C.P. Ellis. C.P. Ellis also expressed similar feelings and had said “It was impossible. How could I work with her?[13]

Despite the initial animosity Atwater and Ellis showed one another, as they got talking during these meetings, they realized both their children were suffering ostracism from other students because Atwater and Ellis were working together. Neither Atwater nor Ellis wanted their own children to attend schools where their children would be exposed to constant violence. Over time they realized that as many differences as they had, their similarities far outweighed them. “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 would talk about hardships involved with raising children with little money and how they had to repeatedly tell their children that they had just as much potential as the middle-class children.[14] Because of their similarities, they eventually learned to work together and to everyone’s astonishment, became good friends. When they moved past race itself, they were able to focus on the real issues that concerned the community, like the quality of Durham’s schools. By working with Atwater, Ellis realized that blacks were not the real enemies that were suppressing poor whites, because those poor blacks were going through the same problems and same lack of power. Atwater had made Ellis begin to question his way of thinking towards blacks.8 By the end of the charrette, C.P. Ellis gave up his leadership in the KKK, showing how much his mentality of blacks differed from before he met Atwater.[15]

When the charrette ended, Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis were able to present the School Board a list of recommendations they carefully crafted over the past ten days. The recommendations included giving students a larger say on issues that concerned their education, which included expanding the School Board to include two white students and two black students. 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.[16]

Personality in connection with political career[edit]

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.[17] 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.[18]

Later life[edit]

After Atwater co-led the charrette, she continued to work with the poor and middle-class black community in Durham. 9 She later married Willie Pettiford in 1975 and became a deacon at the Mount Calvary United Church of Christ.[19]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Ann Atwater, interview by Jennifer Fiumara and Mary Cleary, The Southern Oral History Program at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, December 7, 1995.
  2. ^ Ann Atwater, An Unlikely Friendship, Documentary, produced by Diane Bloom, 2002, New York: Film Makers Library, Film.
  3. ^ Christina Green, Our Separate Ways: Women and the Black Freedom Movement in Durham, North Carolina (The University of North Carolina Press, 2005).
  4. ^ Ann Atwater, interview by Jennifer Fiumara and Mary Cleary, The Southern Oral History Program at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, December 7, 1995.
  5. ^ Robert R. Korstad and James L. Leloudis, To Right These Wrongs: The North Carolina Fund and the Battle to End Poverty and Inequality in 1960s America (The University of North Carolina Press, 2010)
  6. ^ Ann Atwater, interview by Sean Aery, Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture, February 1, 2006.
  7. ^ Robert R. Korstad and James L. Leloudis, To Right These Wrongs: The North Carolina Fund and the Battle to End Poverty and Inequality in 1960s America (The University of North Carolina Press, 2010).
  8. ^ Robert R. Korstad and James L. Leloudis, To Right These Wrongs: The North Carolina Fund and the Battle to End Poverty and Inequality in 1960s America (The University of North Carolina Press, 2010).
  9. ^ Osha Gray Davidson, The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South (UNC Press Books, 1996), accessed November 9, 2014.
  10. ^ Maegan Lobo-Berg, The Reality of Self-Help in Durham’s Operation Breakthrough.
  11. ^ Robert R. Korstad and James L. Leloudis, To Right These Wrongs: The North Carolina Fund and the Battle to End Poverty and Inequality in 1960s America (The University of North Carolina Press, 2010).
  12. ^ Ann Atwater, An Unlikely Friendship, Documentary, produced by Diane Bloom, 2002, New York: Film Makers Library, Film.
  13. ^ Kevin Washington, “C.P. Ellis Says Klan Days Have Been Over for Awhile,” Black Ink, December 7, 1984, accessed November 10, 2014.
  14. ^ Jean Bradley Anderson, Durham County: A History of Durham County, North Carolina (Duke University Press, 1990), accessed November 9, 2014.
  15. ^ Robert R. Korstad and James L. Leloudis, To Right These Wrongs: The North Carolina Fund and the Battle to End Poverty and Inequality in 1960s America (The University of North Carolina Press, 2010).
  16. ^ Osha Gray Davidson, The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South (UNC Press Books, 1996), accessed November 9, 2014.
  17. ^ Cliff Bellarny, “Bold Measure for Difficult Times,” The Hearald Sun, December 12, 2012, accessed November 10, 2014.
  18. ^ Ann Atwater, An Unlikely Friendship, Documentary, produced by Diane Bloom, 2002, New York: Film Makers Library, Film.
  19. ^ Osha Gray Davidson, The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South (UNC Press Books, 1996), accessed November 9, 2014.
  • Ann Atwater, interview by Jennifer Fiumara and Mary Cleary, The Southern Oral History Program at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, December 7, 1995.
  • Ann Atwater, An Unlikely Friendship, Documentary, produced by Diane Bloom, 2002, New York: Film Makers Library, Film.
  • Christina Green, Our Separate Ways: Women and the Black Freedom Movement in Durham, North Carolina (The University of North Carolina Press, 2005).
  • Robert R. Korstad and James L. Leloudis, To Right These Wrongs: The North Carolina Fund and the Battle to End Poverty and Inequality in 1960s America (The University of North Carolina Press, 2010).
  • Ann Atwater, interview by Sean Aery, Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture, February 1, 2006.
  • Osha Gray Davidson, The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South (UNC Press Books, 1996), accessed November 9, 2014.
  • Maegan Lobo-Berg, The Reality of Self-Help in Durham’s Operation Breakthrough.
  • Kevin Washington, “C.P. Ellis Says Klan Days Have Been Over for Awhile,” Black Ink, December 7, 1984, accessed November 10, 2014
  • Jean Bradley Anderson, Durham County: A History of Durham County, North Carolina (Duke University Press, 1990), accessed November 9, 2014.
  • Cliff Bellarny, “Bold Measure for Difficult Times,” The Hearald Sun, December 12, 2012, accessed November 10, 2014.