GEORGIA ORIGINAL: This is the ninth in a series of stories spotlighting area residents who have contributed to the betterment of Northeast Georgia through their community works. In this series, The Times will highlight one person or persons each month.
When 68-year-old Deborah Mack was growing up, there was an understood “line drawn that you knew not to cross.”
As a young black woman living during the time of segregation, the Gainesville native said she was fortunate not to have very many experiences with “blatant” racism in her hometown. But Mack said she’ll never forget the experience she had in Gaffney, S.C.
After getting lost on a detour while traveling to Virginia to visit one of her sisters, Mack, her older brother, Robert Lee Shirley, and his girlfriend stopped in the middle of the night to ask for directions. Mack said she remembers begging her brother not to ask the group of white men outside the building as he got out of the car.
“As he walked toward the men, they said ‘Oh, here comes a nigger.’ And they shot him,” Mack said.
Frightened, the two girls drove away and crashed the car into a ditch along the highway. The girls stayed hidden in the ditch when the men followed. Mack said they were fortunate to find help at a nearby house.
“They called the police and found my brother,” Mack said. “He was alive, but they shot him in his side. He still has a bullet in him to this day. That’s an experience I will never forget.”
Mack said her brother recovered and a trial was eventually held. No one was found guilty.
Mack said the experience was very frightening “but it didn’t make me bitter.”
“My mother taught us not to hate,” Mack said. “She said ‘A lot of people do things because they don’t know any better. So don’t you be like them.’”
Mack said her parents, the late William and Amanda Keith, taught her and her six siblings a lot about life and the importance of being in a position to help others.
Amanda Keith was well-known in the Newtown community where Mack grew up off Mill Street.
“Mother became known as the cake baker,” Mack said, smiling. “If someone died in the black community, she’d bake a cake. She’d make us go and deliver it. We’d say ‘Mama, we don’t know those people’ and she’d tell us to drive until we saw the flower on the door.”
Her mother’s example of kindness and community involvement stuck with Mack throughout her life.
The Gainesville native started serving on several nonprofit boards following her retirement. It began after a teacher at North Hall High School asked her to join the advisory board specifically because she was a black female.
“I said ‘Well, thank you for being honest, I’ll be glad to serve.’” Mack said, smiling.
One of the organizations she’s particularly proud of serving on is the board of directors for Gateway Domestic Violence Center, which she helped found in 1982.
Jessica Butler, executive director of Gateway Domestic Violence Center, said Mack has always been a reliable supporter of the center by providing advice, helping with projects or supporting the group financially.
“She’s one of those people who’s always quietly behind the scenes doing things that I don’t think people are always aware she’s doing,” Butler said. “She’s very passionate about this cause and always supportive of everything that we do.”
Serving the community through her work with the area’s nonprofits fulfills her desire to make the community a better place, Mack said.
“My parents were always helping in the community because (they could),” Mack said. “Don’t look at (people’s) circumstances and what they have, just see there’s a need and do it. ... I can still hear her now ‘Do it because you can do it.’”
Her parents also encouraged Mack in her educational pursuits.
Though her parents weren’t very educated — her father could neither read nor write — the children were often told going to school was the foundation for a better life for themselves and others.
After graduating in the first class of the segregated E.E. Butler High School in 1963, Mack attended Spelman College in Atlanta, majoring in home economics and minoring in general science. She returned to Gainesville and was offered a position as a teacher for the University of Georgia’s new pilot prekindergarten program. After two years of teaching at Fair Street Elementary School — the same school she attended — the program ended. Mack then decided teaching wasn’t what she wanted to do.
She was then encouraged to apply for a position in the Georgia Department of Labor.
“This was back in the time of the heated tensions of race relations and everything,” Mack said. “I had people approach me and say ‘We can’t find a black person who can pass the test and you haven’t been that long out college and we feel like you can pass the test.’ I applied and was escorted to take the test in Atlanta and brought back home to my doorsteps. I passed the test and went to work for the Labor Department.”
Mack worked in a number of positions at the department for more than 30 years before retiring in November 2000.
Two years later, Mack was spurred to apply for a different service-style position — a Hall County commissioner. The seat opened after the death of Frances Meadows, the first African-American to hold a position on the Board of Commissioners.
Mack said her friend Sammy Smith, a member of the Gainesville City School Board, asked her to lunch one day and suggested she consider running for the office.
“I said, ‘I don’t know the first thing about politics. I don’t even keep up with it, because I was too busy in my career,’” Mack said. “He said ‘Well, you learned how to do that job when you started it. You can learn to do this one.’”
Smith said he and several others in the community thought of Mack because she had earned a reputation for being a poised, professional and strong, people-focused female leader with a “servant’s heart that she inherited from her mother.” Smith said Mack stepped up and did an “outstanding job” during a time of marked growth for the county.
Mack’s second term ended in 2008 when she was defeated by Ashley Bell.
Mack isn’t ashamed to admit she was nervous when she took on the leadership role.
“After I got in there, I found it very interesting and there were a lot of things that you can do being a politician to help others,” Mack said. “Not that you can’t help others by not being in politics, but you learn a lot more.”
Mack said she was criticized for traveling while in office, but it was through her travels that she learned about opportunities available to Hall County. Opportunities such as funding from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs for the rehabilitation of the impoverished areas of Black and Cooley drives in Gainesville.
She’s also proud of seeing the county develop more opportunities for minority employees to move up in their careers.
“Someone has to make a step to make things change,” Mack said. “Somebody has to be willing and brave enough to make that move. I’m not the one, but I do believe in trying to do my best. Because nothing beats a failure like a try. You’ve got to try.”