“How in the hell does anyone believe a story like this?” C.P. Ellis asks in “An Unlikely Friendship,” Diane Bloom’s 2003 documentary in which he stars.
For good reason. In the 1970s, Ellis was an outspoken voice for white supremacists in Durham, an “Exalted Cyclops” with the local Ku Klux Klan. He often butted heads with Ann Atwater, a fearless civil rights activist and community organizer in Durham’s poorest black neighborhoods.
But in 1971, the two agreed to co-chair a charrette, an intense series of community meetings focused on easing racial conflicts in schools. Their encounters bloomed into an unlikely alliance that have been chronicled as a novel, a play, and now, a film.
Starring Taraji P. Henson and Sam Rockwell, “The Best of Enemies” opened in theaters nationwide last week. Even though the movie was filmed in Georgia, it is mostly true to real events in Durham. Not all city schools were segregated in 1971, but Durham was under a federal court order to eliminate racial segregation where it remained.
Several locations in the film depict places still standing today. Here are some of the spots where the real drama played out:
C.P. Ellis’ service station
2620 Angier Ave.
Now L & D Grocery & Grill, this was once the location of Ellis’ gas station which he proudly purchased after years of saving. “I was having a tough time financially, getting enough money together to buy a tank of gas to put in there,” Ellis said in “An Unlikely Friendship.” The station became a popular spot for local klansmen to grab a drink after their nearby meetings. It was through conversations with these customers that Ellis eventually joined their chapter and came to leadership, feeling he had finally found community. He was ostracized by former friends after publicly denouncing the klan at the final night of the charrette. By 2002, long after he became a union leader for Duke University maintenance workers, not much had changed: “I bet you I could walk up to that corner in East Durham right now, and there wouldn’t be two people to speak to. That’s how long this lasted,” he said in the documentary.
East End Elementary School
515 Dowd St.
The original East End Graded School, built in 1909, was the third elementary school founded for African-American students in Durham, according to Open Durham. The structure above, built on the same site, dates to 1932. A fire badly damaged East End in 1963, not right before the charrette as the new movie suggests. It is true that the school’s parents were angry that the city ran two shifts of classes at the school rather than move their children to schools with white students after the fire, according to Osha Gray Davidson’s book “The Best of Enemies.” The book, the inspiration for the new movie, also reports that the fire was arson. Today, the building houses the Bethel Family Worship Center.
North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company
411 W Chapel Hill St.
Charrette organizer Bill Riddick of Raleigh arranged the first official meeting between future co-chairs Ellis and Atwater at the NC Mutual cafeteria, though the pair already knew each other from contentious faceoffs in city council meetings. (In one encounter, Atwater nearly pulled a knife on Ellis but a friend stopped her.) “[The cafeteria] was kind of neutral. It wasn’t in the African American neighborhood, and it was far enough removed for C.P. Ellis to come,” Riddick in “An Unlikely Friendship.” At first, Ellis was unwilling to sit at the table.
“CP was pacing the floor ‘cause Bill and I were the only blacks there [..] and he didn’t want anybody to see him sit down with no blacks to eat,” Atwater said in Bloom’s documentary. Eventually, Ellis pulled up a chair though both he and Atwater remained leery of each other throughout the duration of the meeting. For Riddick, the confrontation was a troubling omen for the charrette to come. “After that first meeting I actually went home saying, ‘This is crazy. This is absolutely crazy. I don’t think I want to do this. I mean, I can make a living easier than this,” he said in the documentary.
N. Harris Elementary School
1520 Cooper St.
The Save Our Schools charette met at N. Harris Elementary School for 10 days from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. It was sponsored by the AFL-CIO through a grant from the Emergency School Assistance Program, a fedCongressional measure to aid in school desegregation, it was the first charrette in the South to be administered on a community-wide basis and hosted a 1,000-person audience at its final meeting, according to the documentary. “[A charrette] just seemed to me to be a fascinating tool to solve community problems” Riddick said in “An Unlikely Friendship.”
While racial tensions made for heated debate and unrest, some community members took the opportunity to foster understanding. When Howard Clement III, then chairman of the Durham Black Solidarity Committee, called Ellis “brother,” it was reported in the Washington Post. When Ellis exhibited a Klan uniform and informational pamphlets at the school, Atwater stopped a group of young boys from destroying his display. “I said, […] ‘You can peep his hole card by reading. You won’t never know where he comes from if you don’t read it and see what’s in the writing,’” Atwater said in Bloom’s documentary. Ellis saw the exchange. “When I went back in the office he says, ‘You ain’t as bad as I thought you was.’ And he started from that day changing about me” she said in the documentary.
The charrette also became an opportunity for fellowship. Black attendees began playing gospel music after meetings and soon Ellis joined in. “When he was tapping his feet I said, ‘We ‘bout got him.’ And when he was clapping his hands I said, ‘I know we got him,’” Atwater said in “An Unlikely Friendship.”
Ellis stunned people on the charrette’s final night. “C.P. Ellis took his Klan card out and said that if schools are going to be better by me tearing this card up, I will do so.’ And, as my grandmother said, my eye tooth fell out. I did not believe I heard that,” Riddick said in the documentary. Atwater remembered Ellis losing “a lot” due to his decision, but he gained a friend in his former foe that would last his lifetime. Atwater spoke at his funeral.
Photo at top by Katie Nelson.