All in the Family
Civil Rights Legend Ann Atwater Welcomes Student Support Team

By Debbie Selinsky • Photos by Jon Gardiner/Duke Photography

Ann Atwater greets guests April 23 at a reception and dinner at Mt. Calvary United Church of Christ. Atwater held the event to thank her Project Compassion support team, which includes 25 divinity students and five community volunteers.

Throughout her life, Durham civil rights activist Ann Atwater’s work with the poor, the sick and the disenfranchised has embodied the Gospel message that it is better to give than receive.

Now, her own health and financial resources in decline at age 71, Atwater is opening her arms to receive as graciously as she has given.

The result is a unique family, one that defies traditional definitions. “These students—black and white—are all my family. I don’t know if I could love them more if I had birthed them all myself,” says Atwater, who lives with her two grandchildren. “And they look after me—men and women, alike.” 

Atwater’s capacity for loving friendship has been chronicled in both the 1996 book Best of Enemies and the documentary film An Unlikely Friendship. Both describe a dramatic reversal of the relationship between Atwater and C.P. Ellis, who once served as grand Cyclops of Durham’s Ku Klux Klan. On opposite sides of the effort to integrate Durham’s public schools in 1970, Ellis and Atwater eventually found common ground and forged a bond that endured until his death from Alzheimer’s disease in 2005.

Although Atwater has never stopped helping others, she recently found herself without the means to get to church and doctors appointments, or to make badly-needed repairs for her modest Birchwood Heights home. Florencey Soltys, project director of An Unlikely Friendship and associate professor of social work at UNC-Chapel Hill, suggested Atwater could benefit from a Project Compassion support team. Project Compassion, an area non-profit organization that provides support for people living with illness, brought together 25 divinity students through
Project Bri(ddd)ge (Building Relationships In Durham through Duke Divinity Graduate Education) and five community volunteers to help.

This team has now evolved into the civil rights activist’s unique family.

Students regularly deliver meals to Atwater, who, as a diabetic, is on a restricted diet. They make sure she has transportation to medical appointments, speaking engagements and to church on Sunday. They’ve also held workdays during which they cleaned out her kitchen cupboards and laid carpet in a room that had been hazardous (she walks with a cane) because of its array of small throw rugs. And when Atwater needed a new sofa and her dryer gave out, Greg Duncan, dean of student services, sent out an appeal to the greater divinity community and got both of those essential items donated.

But from the students’ perspective, “Mama Ann” still does the lion’s share of the giving.

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