Black History is Local History: Theodore and Doris Mack

As you may have read in one of our previous posts, Historical Views on Racism in Poughkeepsie, segregation and racism has existed here in the State of New York. However, we have also had some incredible people who lived right here in Poughkeepsie, who managed to overcome whatever barriers were put in their way while continuing the fight for Civil Rights. A couple who were raised and married in the South and made their way to Poughkeepsie just after World War II would find themselves on the front lines of it all. Together, they saw some interesting sights, made a difference in their community, and made a powerful friend along the way. 

Theodore Lanett Mack was born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1920 and was educated in local schools before heading off to college. While attending Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, he ended up pausing his studies to serve in the Navy as a musician during the war. In 1946, after he completed his service, Mack (as everyone called him) married Doris Holloway in Durham, North Carolina. Doris was born in Durham in 1922 and went to college to earn her Bachelor’s degree. Together they moved north to Hyde Park, and then to Poughkeepsie, where Doris took on work as a proofreader for Western Publishing. Mack went to Bard College to continue his studies in social work, then went on to Columbia University for his Master’s degree. By 1953, Mack took on a job as a social worker at Castle Point Veterans Hospital. He quickly worked his way up to become the first Black American to hold the position of chief psychiatric social worker. 

Both Mack and Doris would contribute to various organizations in the community that helped the cause for Civil Rights. Mack served on the board of directors for Lincoln Center, and was a regular speaker for events concerning both social work and Civil Rights at the Catherine Street Community Center. He spoke at the Vassar Temple on the actions happening within the schools of his hometown of Little Rock in 1957. He was one of the members of the local NAACP chapter chosen to represent Dutchess County at a National Civil Rights Legislative meeting in Washington, D.C. in 1963. He would also join the thousands of people in the famous March on Washington in August of that same year. Mack would continue in his efforts until his death at the age of 69 in 1990. 

Doris, who just turned 100 years old this week (Happy Birthday Doris Mack!), has been a busy mother, worker, and community volunteer for most of her life. Many people who visited the area have had the pleasure of meeting her when she volunteered as a tour guide at Eleanor Roosevelt’s Val-Kill, a National Historic Site in Hyde Park. It was at Val-Kill where Doris and her husband Mack were welcomed as friends by the former First Lady. Mack and Mrs. Roosevelt both received their degrees at the same ceremony at Bard College (Mrs. Roosevelt’s was an honorary degree) and she even wrote about the experience in her “My Day” column, “I was particularly fortunate to receive an honorary degree on the same occasion that two of my Hyde Park neighbors, Theodore Lannet Mack and Thomas Morgan, were graduated.” 

Doris would encounter Mrs. Roosevelt on several occasions, including a visit to Lincoln Center  in Poughkeepsie for an NAACP meeting in 1958 (as seen in the photograph in this article by the Wall Street Journal). Up until just a few years ago, Doris Mack was sharing her experiences with the world at Val-Kill. She could recall how gracious Mrs. Roosevelt was whenever they met and how the First Lady proclaimed that her friends resembled her furniture: “they come in all shapes, sizes, and colors” (if you’ve seen the inside of Val-Kill Cottage, you’d get the reference). Mrs. Roosevelt would of course be known as a strong supporter of the Civil Rights movement, even as white supremacist groups sent her death threats. And as Doris continues to say to this day, “I was lucky to know Mrs. Roosevelt, and she was lucky to know me!”

Poughkeepsie Journal – 15 Feb 1950, 10 Jun 1951, 2 Aug 1953, 17 May 1955, 4 Sep 1957, 10 Oct 1957, 20 Sep 1959,  9 Aug 1963, 10 Nov 1963,  5 Aug 1965, 14 Sep 1965, 21 Jun 1967, 15 Jan 1990.
Roosevelt, Eleanor. “May Day” – June 19 1951
Oral History with Doris Mack, conducted by Shannon Butler       

01 – Newspaper article with a photo of Theodore L. Mack in 1957.
02 – Newspaper article with a photo showing Theodore Mack (second from right) in 1967.
03 – Photo of Doris Mack when she volunteered at Val-Kill and the author of this blog, Shannon Butler (back when she was a Park Ranger) in 2012.