Her ‘personal reckoning’ deals with family’s history as enslavers

In ‘Unloose My Heart,’ Chatham’s Marcia Herman-Giddens writes about trauma, reconciliation and love


Even as a young girl, Marcia Herman-Giddens recognized something was amiss.

It was 1946. The soon-to-be 6-year-old Marcia had moved with her family from New York to the Southern city of Birmingham, Alabama — the most segregated city in the United States.

The “move South” admonition came from the doctors treating her mother, who suffered from asthma.

“I doubt I even knew what segregation was,” Herman-Giddens writes in her just-published memoir, “but I soon found out.”

Herman-Giddens has lived in Chatham County since 1995. She retired from full-time teaching and research at Duke University Medical Center in 1994, then joined the Gillings School of Global Public Health at UNC-Chapel Hill. After a year, she accepted a position at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner for three years while continuing her involvement with Gillings.

She’s gained professional acclaim for her studies on tick-borne infections and for her research on child abuse homicides, which led to the creation of new laws. She also authored landmark studies documenting the earlier age of onset of puberty in American children.

But in “Unloose My Heart: A Personal Reckoning with the Twisted Roots of My Southern Family Tree,” Herman-Giddens works to examine the “sorrowful vapor” that clung to her in her new childhood home. Her introspection delves into her descendance from a family of well-to-do enslavers on her mother’s side, her mother’s own struggles with mental illness, and how her mother viewed how Black people were treated in Alabama.

“She [Herman-Giddens’ mother] would unashamedly tell me stories about ‘how good they were to their slaves,’ and ‘how happy the darkies were,’” she writes. “She didn’t see I had my own reasons to feel outcast and trod on; thus, I identified with these trampled invisible people from the past as my sorrow increased. All while my mother’s supremacist talk — ‘Whites are the superior race, colored people are childlike, and they need us to tell them what to do’ — never sat right with me.”

In the preface to the book, Herman-Giddens points out that “dozens of books” have been written about the appalling events in Birmingham.

“I do not need to repeat these,” she writes. “I have my own civil rights stories. I was no hero, just a minor figure.”

She did, however, need to study her own history, and her ancestors’, and Birmingham’s, to “find out what I didn’t know, what I had forgotten, see how it all wove together, and how I navigated my growing up.”

The result is a book critics and reviewers are calling a “gripping tale of self-discovery that is both painful and inspiring,” and “a remarkable achievement of personal and historical journalism.”

Charles Dew, the author of “The Making of a Racist: A Southerner Reflects on Family, History, and the Slave Trade,” said Herman-Giddens’ book “will take its place among other such memoirs as a distinguished addition to the autobiographical literature looking at the city’s critical experience during the Civil Rights Movement from the perspective of its white citizens.”

Herman-Giddens dedicates the book, in part, to “all the people enslaved by our ancestors and their offspring, named and unnamed: kidnapped, bought, sold, and born into slavery, always held against their will.” And she lists hundreds of them by name — names she uncovered in her research of family wills, deeds of sale, letters and other documents — dating between the years of 1734 and 1865: Mimbo, Ireland, Aggy, Black Simon, Phoebe, Sipio, Selah, Seaborn, Armistead, Zilda, Quash, Jenny, Risanah, Pandy, Fillis and Bacchus among them.

She also espouses the goals of the book in its preface, speaking about “illuminating the ghosts” and trying to understand truths about her family’s past she can’t see.

“So, to ease my haunting and satisfy my growing need to uncover the forgotten and secreted past from which I came, this book grew and sprouted tendrils,” Herman-Giddens writes. “Daily news reports show us that racial problems in our society are far from over. Those of us who look white seem to have only just started to examine our existential angst of ‘whiteness.’”

Sharing her story, she writes, might help others — just as it’s helped her.

The News + Record spoke to Herman-Giddens about “Unloose My Heart,” which was published by The University of Alabama Press.

Your book addresses growing up and you personally gaining an awareness of white supremacy and racism — both in your home and in the city in which you came of age. You’re white; you say you were just a “minor figure” in the stories of that struggle, not a hero. But your insights seem heroic. What about your experiences haunted you, and compelled you to write about them?

After I moved to Birmingham at the age of 6 in 1946, I lived in a starkly white world. For many years, the only African Americans I ever saw were when riding the city buses and, a few years later, our kind “maid” who started coming to our home once a week to help my mother. I noticed that Black people were forced to sit and stand in the back of the buses and the uniformed women getting off them in the nicer parts of town fanning out toward elegant houses. The subjugation and inequities were clear to me even as a young child. This, blended with my mother’s racism and pride she had for her slave-holding ancestors did not sit right with me. My father taught me to be fair and kind.

The cement that caused the haunting was the handwritten genealogy book my aunt had created for her siblings. The book fascinated me as a child. One entry aside the family trees mentioned that one of my fourth great-grandfathers had brought “his negroes” with him when he moved from Virginia to North Carolina. I didn’t know it then, but it turned out that all but one set of my great-great grandparents on back six generations were slaveholders.

How can “illuminating the ghosts” of our collective past help us?

Knowing the fullness and truth about ourselves and our history from the individual level to community must happen in order to prevent repeating mistakes from the past and to guide our future actions. Our vision becomes clearer. We can learn how we need to grow and change. The same applies to individuals. Plus, many families have secrets, sometimes completely hidden, sometimes hinted at, that may shape their future in undesirable ways. Trauma may be passed down. What you don’t know can have power over you. It is better to know.

No matter one’s religion, the Biblical saying, “The truth shall set you free,” speaks to us all.

How do you judge and assess your slave-holding ancestors?

I am still trying to figure that out. I have stood before many graves of my enslaver ancestors thinking about that very question. They were not all bad people. My feelings are always mixed. I wish I could have a conversation with them. To the extent of my research, I did not find any evidence of any of their enslaved people being manumitted. Did even one have doubts about their slave-holding? I have no records that they did but few personal papers exist. That they were doing what their peers were doing and their ancestors had done for more than 200 years can’t be the whole answer. People were brutalized by being slaveholders. They lived in fear. Was it worth it? These are some of the things I think about.

You write that in Jim Crow Birmingham, where you moved from New York City, “there was Black fear, and it swam in streams of white fear.” When you moved to Birmingham, in 1946, it was considered the most segregated city in the South. For those who grew up in subsequent generations, and in different cultures, what can you share about the Jim Crow experience? What did it look like? And how did the fear you discuss in your book manifest itself, both for Black and white people ?

We were all damaged by Jim Crow. Obviously, African Americans were harmed far more than white people. We were prisoners in an apartheid system that denied all of us the benefit of equal use of public and private spaces, friendships, opportunities, learning and so much more.

African Americans couldn’t use the libraries even though their taxes help support them. Think of the deprivation and repercussions of just that. It was illegal for Black and white people to be in the same room unless there was a tall barrier, or the Black people were there in a serving capacity. The parts of town we could be in were strictly defined according to law or custom. Black and white people were afraid of each other for so many reasons my book goes into.

There was a great fear of the Ku Klux Klan which was very active. In addition to the well-known bombings and cross burnings, unspeakable atrocities were committed against African American people by the Klan and other white supremacists. The Klan didn’t spare white people either if they didn’t tow the racial lines.

Birmingham became known as “Bombingham” by the time you were in your teens, even aside from the 16th Street Baptist Church attack in 1963. Why? And how did what you saw (and heard) affect you?

Growing up I didn’t know about the hideous mechanics of Jim Crow to “keep African Americans in their place.” Very few white children did. By my late teens I was starting to know. By then, I had had several searing experiences which I describe in my book that showed me the extent and depth of the effect of actions by white supremacists on African American people.

Everyone knew about the frequent bombings. In the early ‘60s my then-husband and I could recognize the sound. Birmingham lay in a long valley between two mountain ranges. The sound would travel down the valley. Many of the Klan bombings were in a neighborhood of middle-class African American homes in a section of Birmingham to the west of the main downtown area. There were so many bombings there the section began to be called “Dynamite Hill.” The knowledge of these bombings was hard to process. How could white people be so cruel and full of hate? Police effort to stop them was lacking. The few times I heard the bombs explode made me sick.

What can you share about what compelled you to become involved in Civil Rights protests and demonstrations after growing up in a home where some racist attitudes were the norm?

My father, who had had to struggle and work hard to get an education, continued to be a model for me of kindness and fairness. By the end of high school, I was already turning into an activist for some reasons starting in my early childhood. My like-minded high school boyfriend introduced me to a couple who had fled the Nazis. They were already involved along with the Unitarian Church in civil rights activities. They became our surrogate parents and were a huge influence and support. Later, after my boyfriend and I married, among other things that happened, I was soon about to lose my laboratory job because I refused to call the Black patients by their first name only. We had already joined the Unitarian Church and fit in with the activism there which at the time was centered on the Civil Rights Movement.

March 1965, you write, was the worst month of your life. It was certainly a month full of history. What can you share about your own memories from that month?

Most people remember that March 1965 in Alabama comprised the Selma marches and several racially motivated killings of Black and white activists fighting for voting rights for African Americans. I was not on the final Selma march, but I did participate in the only white march in the country to support Black voting rights. The details of this event were lost in the media and even in my mind after almost six decades, because it turned out that the march by the Concerned White Citizens of Alabama, held in Selma, was the day before Bloody Sunday. Seventy-two of us from several cities in Alabama went to Selma, got trained in non-violent techniques and marched for what seemed like an endless number of blocks to the courthouse to read our statement.

About 300 angry white people, some holding bats, pushed us, heckled and spit on us, and shouted. Many more Black people stood away from the white people quietly singing giving us support. We managed to make it back to our respective towns alive.

Bloody Sunday the next day overshadowed the white march in the media. That Sunday became known around the world because Alabama state troopers beat unarmed Black marchers bloody with billy clubs and sprayed them with tear gas undeterred by news reporters filming the event. The next march, two days later, was led by Martin Luther King Jr. They got partway across the now-famous Edmun Pettus Bridge before being stopped by a wall of troopers on horseback holding guns.

During this time, a call had gone out to clergy everywhere to come and help and participate in the marches. Our church was called on to provide as much transportation and housing as we could. My then-husband and I had hordes of people staying with us whom we had to feed and provide bedding for, mostly pads and sleeping bags. By then we had two children, and I had just learned I was pregnant with our third. Our house had only one bathroom. I don’t know how we did it. Already tired, we became even more exhausted.

Two weeks later King, with federal intervention, succeeded in leading thousands of people, Black and white, to Montgomery to demand voting rights. After the march, the Klan’s final killing around these the voting efforts was to shoot a woman from Detroit, to death, for marching and for driving marchers to the Montgomery airport. The state capitol at the time flew a Confederate flag, not an American flag. It all sickened me and my first husband. We decided to prepare to move away from Alabama.

You have a lifetime of memories and experiences. What among them were you particularly happy to have included in the book?

I was very pleased to be able to write in detail about the Concerned White Citizens march I discussed above due to an extraordinary incident, detailed in my book, that gave me more information. It eased my heart to dedicate the book not only to my children, grandchildren and all my descendants but to all the enslaved people my ancestors held, always against their will. I listed all the names, hundreds of them, that I was able to find in wills and other documents.

There are likely many times over for whom there are no names anywhere. I was also pleased to write in depth about my experience in 1964 at the then-Tuskegee Institute as part of a War on Poverty program. My two good friends and I along with a few other white people were the first white people to attend classes there, albeit special summer classes. My account of our summer constitutes the only published material I have been able to find about the program, Project CAUSE. In my research on it, I learned some chilling things.

Finally, I was pleased be able to include the entire document for the auction of my third-great granduncle’s property in Louisiana. His many enslaved people being property are listed in detail that shows what horrors enslaved people endured. Reading the real thing is more powerful than some description in a history book.

You also write: “We think we know our lives. We don’t.” Why is that important for all of us to recognize?

Probably all of us to some extent have parallel lives. We don’t know these lives or how they might be affecting us unless we try to sleuth out what else was going on and what else were we exposed to that we couldn’t see at the time. I was so fortunate to be able to take the time to examine my life in this way.

You’re brutally honest in your book about the horrors in your own home — your parents’ violent arguments, your mother’s struggle with mental illness and your fear of her, and unhappy events that happened to you and shaped (and maybe even scarred) you. But your parents loved you, too. Looking back, how would you characterize your story and your life and its meaning?

As I wrote in my book, I wouldn’t be who am I without all that happened in my home. I had to become strong and develop coping mechanisms. I knew I didn’t want to be antagonistic to people of a different religion or of a different color. One of my mother’s good points was that she didn’t have any of the usual fears that women at that time often had so I did not learn to be afraid of going somewhere by myself, or to be afraid of snakes, for example. She and my father provided me with travels and lessons in dance, drawing and piano and more so I know how to do things.

These lessons were her idea. They helped to give me agency and confidence. I treasured taking long hikes with my father during which he would teach me about nature and the names of trees. I was loved by them both. As an only child, I probably had more opportunities than I might have otherwise. From late adolescence on, my life was rich and full of adventures and experiences. I ended up in places where I was privileged to serve or provide help or certain knowledge. I am forever grateful.

What brought you to Chatham County, and as we observe Black History Month here, what do you see that gets your attention?

When my first husband and I left Birmingham we went to Gastonia where he had been offered a job as a computer programmer in a textile company. In another year we were in Chapel Hill, though he worked at Duke. After some years we found a piece of property in Chatham County with a little house perched on piles of stones at each corner and an interesting piece of history. We had happy times there as a getaway place. My younger son and his family now own it.

Later, after we divorced, I looked for a house south of Chapel Hill, and found where I am now with my second husband. His association with Chatham County goes back more than 50 years. I have lived here since 1995. For almost nine years I have had the privilege to associate with our excellent Chatham County Department of Public Health by serving on its board. Thus, the needs I see are through that lens.

We have a lot of racial disparity here in Chatham despite awareness and efforts to address it. Life expectancy in our county reflects national trends. White people here can expect to live about 80 years; African Americans only 74.7 years. Most concerning to me are the much higher maternal and infant mortality rates for Black mothers and babies as compared to white babies. Maternal mortality is over twice as high in our county and African American babies die at two and a half times the rate of white babies. The root of these disparities is systemic racism. The Chatham Maternity Care Center at Chatham Hospital needs to stay open. We have a lot of work to do.

Given what you’ve seen and experienced, and the insights you’ve gained from this incredible life, what lessons and insights do you think are most important to impart and share?

Be kind, look for the truth and tell the truth. Check your sources and pay attention. Learn about your past and your family and its history. Do things to help others feel better. It will make you feel better. Take chances and take risks. That helps you grow and can provide amazing experiences. Smile at everyone.

Bill Horner III can be reached at bhorner3@chathamnr.com or @billthethird.

Marcia Herman-Giddens Birmingham Alabama chatham Pittsboro Siler+city racism segregation memoir reconciliation book autobiography south slavery slaveholders slave-holders civil rights