The DeKalb Difference Blog

Q&A with DeKalb County Superior Court Clerk Debra DeBerry

In honor of Women’s History Month, DeKalb County Superior Court Clerk Debra DeBerry sat down for an interview with the Decide DeKalb Development Authority at her office inside the DeKalb County Courthouse in Decatur. DeBerry, a New York City native, manages a department that has 106 employees and an annual budget of more than $7 million.

Q: Which influential women in history inspire you the most and why?

A: I think that’s a tough question because there’s several. But I have to start with a woman who has had the most influence on my life and that’s my mom, who we recently lost. But my mother laid the foundation for me, for who I am. That foundation was rooted in Christian values. She taught me integrity, honesty, hard work, love, faith and prayer, and these values have guided me through my entire life and all of my successes, including being clerk of Superior Court.

I learned from her because she demonstrated strength and courage, how to never give up, organizational skills, budgeting, networking. These are all characteristics that makes a successful woman or anyone like that. But they certainly have added to my own success, to name a few.

Then, another woman that I thought about immediately was Cleopatra, who’s often known as a femme fatale, a temptress. But Cleopatra is an influence to me because she was one of the most powerful women in history. She ran an entire empire, the Egyptian Empire, and she was an intellectual, strategic politician or political strategist. And she demonstrated the necessity of networking, thus the relationship with Caesar of the Roman Empire, which, by the way, she almost brought down also. But that’s another story. But she understood the necessity of networking, which all of us, especially women, rely on today, including myself, those partnerships. And she did so all for the people that she loved, and her country or her empire. She was tough. She had to make hard choices, tough decisions. I have not had to make some quite as difficult as she was presented with, but she had to make these hard decisions for the growth and protection of her empire and of her people. She also had to overcome the whispers, the doubters, much like we as women have to do and most of us experience at some point. I also relate to her because often her or the intelligence and intellectualism of women is often erased or forgotten. And what history is left with are women’s beauty or how that woman existed in relationship to and with men, which is unfortunate. I think we’ve seen that even with Cleopatra.

And then in more recent times, one of the more influential women that I really admire and who has been influential not only for me and all women but also for the Civil Rights Movement, and that’s Jo Ann Robinson, who forged the way for Dr. [Martin Luther] King and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. She was actually born here in Georgia, was a schoolteacher in Macon, Georgia. And then in 1949, Jo Ann Robinson moved to Montgomery, Alabama, to become a teacher at Alabama State University. While she was in Montgomery, she became an active member of the Women’s Political Council, which is a local civic organization made up of African American professional women to increase involvement in civil affairs, voter registration and Black communities in Montgomery, and also aiding women, which this, by the way, was new or different at the time, victims of rape and assault. Even though we knew there were a lot of rapes happening during that time period, they actually focused on getting aid to those women. But soon after Jo Ann Robinson moved to Montgomery, she was verbally abused by a public bus driver for sitting in a whites-only designation on the bus.

Then, following Rosa Parks’ arrest in December of 1955 for not giving up her seat to a white person, Robinson and a few of her associates made thousands and thousands of fliers and passed them out, spent nights passing out these fliers and held a one-day bus boycott. Well, that one-day bus boycott was so successful that the community decided to continue pressing on and formed MIA, the Montgomery Improvement Association, to further desegregation, especially for patrons of the bus system. They elected Dr. Martin Luther King as its first president to continue that. So, that is how Dr. King got involved with the Montgomery Bus Boycott that we’re all familiar with. The rest is history on that. It was interesting that Dr. King said of Jo Ann Robinson, “Apparently indefatigable, she, perhaps more than any other person, was active on every level of the protest.” Jo Ann Robinson is influential to me because, as a woman working in a male-dominated arena, she took substantial risks not only to her life but her livelihood and brought significant change, including setting the stage for Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement. Her community involvement inspires me to this day, that whatever our forum is, use it to better the community and our people.

Q: You mentioned being in a male-dominated field. How do you think your impact as a woman, being in a male-dominated field, is going to impact our future?

A: I start right here in terms of not only hiring women, because the goal is, and so far we are achieving it, is to represent the community we live in. DeKalb County is one of the most diverse, if not the most diverse, counties in the state of Georgia. As a public servant, my office should look like the people who voted for me and that I represent. So, we try to do that. But in doing so, we know the playing fields are not always level, but it is my commitment in what I accomplish to empower the women. In an organization where we have men and women, we deal with not only potential gender biases, but we also have age, cultural [biases]. So, understanding that and learning to appreciate the differences rather than making it a point of contention, we spend time training on how to get along, why it’s important. I always press we’re here to love, to serve people. Yes, this is a specific job and that’s the priority. And that means not being judgmental. If we’re not judgmental about the people who walk through our doors, why would we be with our co-workers? Why would we be that way with each other? So, tolerance [and] understanding [are] very important to a cohesive working organization. Equal pay – a man does not get more than a woman or vice versa. Our pay is often determined by budgets, of course. We still have to look in the realm of that, but I’m not going to look at this employee that’s a female and think, ‘She’s a woman. This man can move boxes for me and she can’t.’ They have women here and they set the example and we’ve raised the bar here in DeKalb, that your gender does not determine what position you get. Your qualifications do.

Q: How do you think recognizing and celebrating Women’s History Month contributes to and promotes gender equality in today’s society?

A: I don’t think it does, and perhaps that pushes the needle a little bit. It relegates women to a month making many feel that, “OK, I recognize them for a month, celebrate women for a month, so I don’t have to do anything else as it relates to equality of women.” It’s almost the same thing with Black History Month. What will change how women are viewed is becoming organized. I learned this from my parents, who were organizers. It is not recognizing women that changes the equity, but it’s how they’re viewed and functioning in society, as most marginalized groups have done. And it’s through organizing. We have many documentaries, books, information out there already that talk about the accomplishments of women throughout history. And yet we don’t have full equity. I see Women’s History Month as another one of those, in my opinion. Women’s History Month does have the potential, however, to bring women together and organize for further change. So what we need is more than just recognition.

Q: Can you talk about the Enslaved Persons Project and how important it is to you? (Editor’s note: Last year DeBerry announced the project, in which the county plans to digitize records documenting the sale and purchase of enslaved persons in DeKalb. Once the project is complete, residents can explore these historical records, which date back to 1838. For more information on the project, visit

A: Oh my God, yes. Now that’s a passion because number one, we have the records. And we don’t want to lose that part of history because so much of our history or legislators, depending on where you sit, what side of the fence you’re on. Some even purport slavery never happened – we don’t want to learn it; we don’t want to teach it. But it is important because it’s a major part of not only this country’s history but the state of Georgia [history]. So, the Enslaved Persons Project, I have four phases, and they’re broken down into years, but the total project deals with the first 100 years of DeKalb County’s history. And we’ve already identified 500 transactions right here in DeKalb. I will tell you to stay tuned. We’ll be releasing some information later this week or next week with a little more detail. But it is an ongoing project. Thus far, we have learned a lot. The Macon-Bibb County slave project dealt more with plantations because it was more of a rural farming community. We have found in DeKalb, there were a lot of skilled labor enslaved persons, which was an interesting dynamic. The transplant of a million slaves just from Virginia to Georgia adds another interesting dynamic to what happened here in DeKalb, so that’s the enslaved project in a nutshell. But the history is important, and to see and read original handwritings and transactions of people, it clearly was a form of human trafficking in the 1800s.

For more information on DeBerry, visit Her website has two incredible resources: the Black history series and women’s voices series.

Clerk DeBerry is an incredible example of women leading in DeKalb. For more information on the incredible people and businesses in DeKalb County, visit Decide DeKalb.