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.

“Ann has taught me a lot about courageously standing up for those who cannot stand for themselves, as she continually lobbies on behalf of others, despite her own challenging condition,” says Caroline Lawson D’09, a Warrenton, Va., student and co-leader for Project Bri(ddd)ge. “She is a living example that faith must be a cornerstone of any effort to help one another. She has helped me … to believe that I can do anything I set my mind to as long as I depend on God for everything.”

Atwater’s life story is a source of inspiration, says Paige Martin D’08, an Albany, Ga., native on track to be ordained as a United Methodist elder after graduation. “I knew that Ms. Atwater was a well-known civil rights activist, and I thought that it would be such a privilege to do something for her, knowing that she had done so much for humanity and for Durham.”

Atwater and her Project Compassion support team, which includes 25 divinity students and five community volunteers.

Project Bri(ddd)ge, adds Martin, offers important lessons for incoming students. “It reminds us that we aren’t just contained in a little bubble at Duke. We live in the city of Durham, and we cannot claim to be passionate about ministry while ignoring our surroundings.”

On Wednesdays, Atwater and her “son” Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove D’06 teach Bible study at a local homeless shelter. “Jonathan is the son God sent to me, and he takes care of me like a son. He calls every month to be sure I can make the utilities, and he lets me know when he’ll be out of town in case I need him,” says Atwater, who is a long-time member of Mt. Calvary United Church of Christ and was the church’s first woman deacon.

For Rebecca Rigel D’08, learning about the history of race relations in Durham has enriched her experiences at Duke.

“I have learned that family and love transcend color boundaries. It is definitely possible for people of varied races, ages and socioeconomic standing to form surrogate families, but it takes patience, humility, willingness to learn, faith, hope and love. In fact, with Ann it has become a reality,” says Rigel, a native of Gainesville, Ga.

“As I’ve grown up in the South, my imagination has been shaped by the racial tensions and divisions that exist in our society. Unfortunately, because of my immersion in the culture, I don’t even realize the degree to which my way of thinking has been shaped by the negative influences of society,” she says.

“I am beginning to see the world more like Ann sees the world—to see every person as a child of God apart from skin color or socioeconomic status. It is possible to transform the imagination so that the boundaries that separate the races and classes can be torn down and a new world can be created here and now.”

Sonia Norris D’06, support team initiative director for Project Compassion, says the 25-student support team for Atwater is a prime example of how Project Compassion works.

“Ann’s team is a perfect example of tapping into a person’s network and our community networks to help. It takes all of us, and that cumulative effect makes a huge difference for people in need.”

Norris, who had also met Atwater while a student at Duke Divinity School, contacted Dean Duncan in an effort to tap into a group of students who might help with Atwater’s care.

“He suggested Project Bri(ddd)ge, and it turned out to be a perfect fit, because that group’s all about community outreach. She loves the students and they love her. They all get so much out of it, and we all take care of each other,” she says.

But if Atwater’s age and health issues (she’s also had two strokes and a heart attack) slow her down a little, they don’t stop her from doing what she’s always done best.

“I believe that my gift from God—He gives us all a gift—was my ability to reach out and touch people. You can call me any time of night—my phone rings 24/7. I can be feeling bad, in pain, and I can get on the phone with someone who needs $200 ’cause they’re about to be evicted. That’s my shot in the arm. First I ask the Lord what door to knock on, then I start calling. By the time I do that, I have raised rent money.”

Those connections are Atwater’s “window to the world,” now that she’s forced to be home much of the time, Norris says. “Her house is Grand Central Station. I looked over the other day at her phone, and she had 61 new calls—that’s nothing for her.

“That’s the way she communicates and stays connected. One of our goals, when we start support teams, is to help people maintain what works for them, and pick up on the parts that are most challenging for them.”

Atwater and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove D’06 teach Bible study at a Durham homeless shelter. “Jonathan is the son God sent to me, and he takes care of me like a son,” she says.

Duncan, who proudly calls himself one of Atwater’s “children,” says that Duke Divinity’s ongoing relationship with her has benefited many students.

“For the past several years, we have had the privilege of having Ms. Atwater speak to our incoming student Project Bri(ddd)ge groups each August. We share lunch with her, watch the documentary An Unlikely Friendship, and then have a fascinating Q&A time with her,” he says.

Also, she meets with the Ubuntu group—20 black and white students who gather weekly to discuss issues of race and racism in their lives, the life of the divinity school, and the life of the church. 

At any time, says Duncan, there are at least 120 students with first-hand experience with Atwater and who are inspired by her faithful example of Christian discipleship.

There are also many members of the faculty and staff who know her, know of her, or have read about her efforts in Durham during the 1960s and ’70s. “So when the calls for assistance go out to the community, there is a ready and enthusiastic response,” Duncan adds.

Greg Duncan, Duke Divinity School’s associate dean for student services, has made a visit from Atwater and discussion of the documentary An Unlikely Friendship a tradition during Project
Bri(ddd)ge. A week-long immersion for students in urban ministry and the Durham community, the program is offered on a first-come, first-served basis each August prior to orientation.

“Our students are receiving far more than they are giving,” he says. “Often, when someone of privilege helps someone in need, there is an accompanying patronizing attitude. Ms. Atwater has taught each of us that, though a person may be in need in one area of her life, that person still has much to give and offer in return.

“It becomes a partnership—mutual giving and receiving. We are learning that service is not as much about giving as it is about being in communion with another who is also fully God’s child.”

This type of work is a reminder that studies and research must be grounded in incarnated discipleship. “All the theory means nothing if it is not applicable to the hopes and sufferings of God’s people,” says Duncan.

“I believe I can work with everybody,” says Atwater, who admittedly had grave doubts when she was asked to collaborate with C.P. Ellis to help integrate Durham’s schools. “When I start working with them, they might not love me to start with, but we can keep working together to learn to love each other,” she says.

Which reminds Dean Duncan of another biblical admonition that the relationships with Atwater reinforce every day: “We are all, regardless of skin color, children of God—brothers and sisters together in one family. No one is more important or less important than another, and when one rejoices, we all rejoice; when one hurts, we all hurt.”