This is Ann “Roughhouse Annie” Atwater’s backyard. She was a fierce and tireless civil rights leader and community organizer who worked for fair housing, desegregation, and equitable education in the Walton community of Durham NC. Her house was a “movement house.” Civil rights leaders traveling through gathered there to plan, practice, and rest.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Ms. Ann lately. I only spent a day with her (along with four others), but her presence shaped me in big ways. I have hours of recorded conversations dripping with faith and wisdom.
In Ms. Ann’s most active years she was despised by White folks and questioned by moderate leaders in the Black community. White folks wanted her to stop while moderate Black leaders wanted her to keep the peace. The KKK couldn’t stand her and the moderates couldn’t stop her.
Ms. Ann believed God knew better than everyone else. She figured since God made Black folks in His image too, He’d want them to be treated equal with White Christians. Her work was messy, dangerous, and disrupted Durham’s preferred way of life. She let go of comfort, safety, and reputation. She pressed on, following Jesus into loving her neighbors through the freedom struggle.
She eventually befriended her enemy, the former Exalted Cyclops of the local KKK chapter, C.P. Ellis. Together they advocated for equitable education (watch the movie “Best of Enemies” or the documentary). C.P. came to be despised by many, especially White folks.
When confronted and accused by local religious and political leaders Jesus reminded them that wisdom is vindicated by its deeds (Matthew 11:19).
Here’s what we know now: Ms. Ann and her co-workers were right and everyone else was wrong. Durham’s fair housing policies and significant advances toward equitable education vindicate her wisdom. All the White neighbors that opposed her or told her to wait or choose a different way, were wrong. All the local Black leaders that told her to slow down and keep the peace were wrong wrong. Generations of children live different lives because Ms. Ann, C.P., and others carried on.
It brings me to this. What I hear from White folks today is the same rhetoric Ms. Ann put up with from White folks then. And what I read from folks like Candace Owens is the same rhetoric she dealt with from some of the local Black leaders then.
When will we learn?
Given all Ms. Ann lived through and the battles she fought, the greatest words she said she had to give was this: “You gotta be a disciple of Jesus and follow him. You gotta follow him, and everything will be alright.”
She was right.
Ann “Roughhouse Annie” Atwater, born July 1, 1935, and finally rested from all her labor on June 20, 2016, but the fruit of her labor still nourishes her neighbors.