In a July 1971 forum on the integration of Durham's schools, Ellis, then an avowed white supremacist, and Atwater, none too fond of whites herself, bonded over their shared experiences and became the best of friends.
Poverty was their common denominator, and over the years, poor folks inspired their life's work. After Ellis renounced the Klan, he organized black and white labor unions in their fights to get salary raises. And Atwater remained a community organizer and eventually worked at the Durham Housing Authority as a liaison between the agency and its residents.
Writer Osha Gray Davidson wrote a book about their remarkable transformation, The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South. And local filmmaker Diane Bloom made a widely seen documentary about them in 2002, An Unlikely Friendship, which features interviews with them and others about how their relationship developed and the impact it had on the community.
But neither Atwater nor Ellis set out to be broke. And these days, Ann Atwater's expenses are more burdensome than inspirational.
In July, she was invited to be on a panel discussion on the role of women in Durham's Civil Rights movement that was hosted by the Durham Public Library. After the event, she went to the library's parking lot to find that that her car 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."
"I feel let down," Atwater says. "I have been in the community so long. It seems like somebody would have looked around and said, 'She's over there. She's struggling. She's done all she can do ... We can lend her a helping hand now without her asking.'"
Atwater, who just turned 70, says she appreciates the more than 200 plaques and awards that line the walls of her modest Birchwood Heights home. But she says she's now facing a financial crisis. Plaques and awards won't do.
"People knew I was out of work. They knew what I made. People can tell you how much good I've done in the community, but I haven't done good enough for them to say, 'Here, Ann, we give you something back.'"
Atwater now gets help from Project Compassion, an organization that provides support for people who are facing end of life, grief, or in the case of Atwater, health problems that require home health care.
Deborah Stewart, support team director for the organization, has been working with Atwater since October. "It's common knowledge that she has financial difficulties," she says. "She gets food from Meal on Wheels. I think Social Security is her only source of income. She has some help with her laundry."
Project Compassion does not provide financial assistance, but instead organizes teams of people who are interested in helping a particular person or working on a particular issue. "She may experience financial poverty, but she does not have a poverty of friends or hope or optimism," Stewart says.
Asking for help from others is a new role for Atwater; it's usually the other way around. "I've been down sick on my bed. And from the hospital room, people call me for help. And I'd help them from the hospital. In here, in my house, I'd help them. They just know I'm going to help them and they call me."
"When school starts, people come here looking for clothes for their children. At Christmas time, people are trying to get their children things for Christmas ... And I'm feeding them for Thanksgiving."
Stewart has witnessed as much. "I've been there a couple of times when the phone has rung, and she has said, 'I'm sorry, we're out of funds,'" Stewart says. "She helps refer people out to other services. People call her for help."
Atwater's selflessness is part of what sustained her friendship with Ellis until he died.
"Every time he needed something, we were right there together," Atwater says. "The only friend he had was me."
Atwater says Ellis was lonely when he died of Alzheimer's disease. "His grandchildren knew nothing about what their grandfather was up to ... I was trying to explain to them what he was like. They didn't know a clue about him at all. When he was in the Klan, the family didn't like it, so they just turned him loose."
"He kind of had a nervous breakdown because he lost all his friends," she says. "His wife died. He had nothing but his puppy--his little dog," she says. "His children called and told me that wanted me to be at the wake ... I went in there and I stayed the whole time. And they were all gathered around me, like I was the center of attraction. Everybody was thanking me for what I had done for him."
A SunTrust account has been established to raise money for Ann Atwater. Donations can be sent to: The Ann Atwater Fund, P.O. Box 1922, Durham, NC 27702-1922. Checks should be made out to the Ann Atwater Fund. Those interested in volunteering with Project Compassion can contact Deborah Stewart at Deborah@project-compassion.org.