Atwater smiling.
Atwater with a joyful smile.

Activist Ann Atwater: ‘The Breakthrough Woman’


Rosa Parks award-winner for Women in Community Service, Ann Atwater spent her life as an outspoken activist for affordable housing and school integration in Durham, North Carolina.

Atwater’s lifelong friendship with ex-member of the Ku Klux Klan, C. P. Ellis, was immortalized in the book “The Best of Enemies” in 1996. The book, authored by Osha Gray Davidson, was adapted to the silver screen in 2019.

Atwater, a single mother of two, was approached by Howard Fuller, a community organizer and the future co-founder of the Malcolm X Liberation University, in the mid-1960s.

With the help of Fuller, Atwater successfully convinced her landlord to improve the derelict state of her house, and she joined Operation Breakthrough, a grassroots program that aided community members in everything from housing security to voter registration.

Atwater excelled at community outreach and quickly became a beloved figure in her community, earning the nickname “The Breakthrough Woman.” The Carolina Times named Atwater “Woman of the Year” in 1967.

“I really wanted to help not only myself but other people because god had given me the gift of reaching out and touching, and I wanted to fulfill the obligation that god gave me to do,” said Atwater in an interview with author and historian Robert Korstad.

During a 10-day “Save Our Schools” meeting—an effort to de-escalate the rising racial tensions at Durham schools—Atwater came head-to-head with then-KKK cyclops Ellis. Their mutual hatred reached a boiling point, but when the children expressed they just wanted to learn together, the pair reached a breakthrough.

“The blinders came off and we both saw that our fighting one another wasn’t doing anything to help the children,” wrote Atwater in an article for the Durham Herald-Sun in 2013. “We didn’t become friends because we wanted to. What happened, really, was we saw how much we had in common. Then we couldn’t imagine not being friends.”

Ellis abandoned the Klan and joined Atwater’s effort for school integration, which was successful.

Atwater spent her later life teaching at the North Carolina School for Conversion, now home to the Ann Atwater Freedom Library.

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