But these days, she's a little better off thanks to the support of Indy readers. Around 30 people responded to the article with more than $2,600 in contributions to the Ann Atwater Fund.
"Somebody's been thinking about me, I can tell you that," Atwater says. "And I'm just as happy as I can be."
Atwater, who recently turned 70, is known for the special relationship she shared with C.P. Ellis, the former Exalted Cyclops of the Durham Ku Klux Klan. In a July 1971 forum on the integration of Durham's public schools, Ellis, then an avowed white supremacist, and Atwater, a black activist, forged an unlikely friendship that overcame their racial and philosophical differences. Their friendship inspired a book, The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South, and a documentary, An Unlikely Friendship. The two remained close until Ellis' death in November of last year.
"Every time he needed something, we were right there together," Atwater said. "The only friend he had was me."
In the years since their friendship began, Atwater has been a pillar in the East Durham community, raising money for poor schoolchildren, the sick and others in need.
"[People] just know I'm going to help them and they call me," she said. Recently, the tables turned.
In July, Atwater was invited to sit on a panel discussion on the role of women in Durham's Civil Rights movement. After the event, she went to the library's parking lot to find that her 2000 Ford Windstar had been repossessed for failure to make payments. She says somebody told her, "With all the hard work you did in Durham, the only thing you got out of it was a repossessed car."
Last month, Atwater paid off the balance of the minivan with the contributions to the fund. "I have a zero balance," Atwater says. "They are going to send me my title in 10 days. I'm through with that." She's using the remainder of the money to help meet her monthly expenses.
"I am so thankful," she says. "You don't really know how thankful I am."