Durham News

Durham civil rights leader Ann Atwater honored with Freedom Library

A photo of Durham civil rights activist Ann Atwater registering voters in the late 1960's hangs on the wall of the newly opened Ann G. Atwater Freedom Library in Durham, N.C. Friday, October 2, 2015.
A photo of Durham civil rights activist Ann Atwater registering voters in the late 1960's hangs on the wall of the newly opened Ann G. Atwater Freedom Library in Durham, N.C. Friday, October 2, 2015. cliddy@newsobserver.com

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In a small yellow house on Onslow Street, young and old gathered to celebrate the gift of a room filled with stories about freedom, struggle and race.

The shelves in the small wood panel room were filled with books about Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Durham’s own Ann Atwater, for whom the room is named.

On Friday the School for Conversion held the grand opening for the Ann G. Atwater Freedom Library.

Founded in 2002, the School for Conversion builds relationships among people from different cultures and backgrounds. One of its programs is Walltown Aspiring Youth, a six-year-old small group mentoring program for youth primarily from the neighborhood. About 15 youth meet after school twice a week.

Last year, the program’s students said they wanted reading material that they could relate to more, said Carynne McIver, operations director for the school.

“That conversation inspired us to create the Freedom Library,” McIver said. “The idea is a space with reading material, most of which are for young adults, and they are by or about people of color.”

Dozens of individuals, including Atwater, churches and community organizations donated shelves, books and freedom movement memorabilia.

The library, which also has books for adults, is meant to be a resource for youth in the program and others in the Walltown neighborhood, where Atwater organized in the 1970s with anti-poverty organization Operation Breakthrough.

Part of the idea is that through reading and learning others will lead like Atwater has, McIver said.

Her role in a 1971 community workshop held to defuse racial tensions as Durham prepared to desegregate its schools has become a Durham legend that will soon be celebrated on the big screen.

Atwater and C.P. Ellis, the then head of the Durham Ku Klux Klan, were appointed leaders of the workshop. They initially shared a mutual animosity but, over the 10 days of meetings, connected over a shared understanding of being poor and wanting more for their children.

On the last day of the meetings, Ellis ripped up his Klan membership card in front of a crowd. The two remained friends, and Atwater spoke at Ellis’s funeral in 2005.

Various publications reported this summer that the story will be brought to the screen with “Empire’s” Taraji P. Henson as Atwater in “The Best of Enemies,” a movie written by “The Hunger Games” producer Robin Bissell.

The movie is based on the book “The Best Of Enemies: Race And Redemption In The New South,” by Osha Gray Davidson.

Before the official opening of the library, Atwater, 80, spoke to about 50 people in the basement of St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church, next to the school.

“Thank you so much for naming the library after big Ann,” she said.

Atwater told how she raised two daughters alone in a house where she didn’t need windows because she could see people walking down the street through the holes in the walls. The bed was made out of cinder blocks and boards, and she gathered coal that fell off the train to heat the house.

Through working with Operation Breakthrough, Atwater discovered a lesson and the confidence to stand up for what’s right.

“I wanted my children to have a better life than I had,” she said.

After the talk, people lined up to shake her hand and give her flowers.

Elizabeth Styron, a Duke University divinity student, told Atwater she regretted not bringing her copy of “Best of Enemies” for her to sign. Atwater then invited her to visit her at her home and share a meal.

The moment left Styron a little stunned, not just by seeing the woman who had made history, but by being invited to her house.

“I’m going to eat chili with Ann Atwater,” she said.

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges

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