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Next year, a life-sized, bronze statue of Henrietta Lacks will be erected in a plaza that was once used to honor Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Roanoke, Virginia. An organization called Roanoke Hidden Histories raised more than $183,000 for the project in its mission to acknowledge Black history in the community’s public spaces.
Henrietta Lacks – whose hometown is Roanoke – was a Black woman and young mother who died on October 4, 1951, eight months after being diagnosed with cervical cancer. While her life was cut short at the age of 31, her legacy lives on through an “immortal” line of cells, known as HeLa cells.
According to the World Health Organization, during her treatment, researchers took samples of Mrs. Lacks’ tumor without her knowledge or consent. For two decades, Mrs. Lacks’ cells were commercialized and distributed across the globe unknown to her family.
Contributing to nearly 75,000 studies, Henrietta Lacks’ cells have paved the way for advancements from HPV and polio vaccines to medications for HIV/AIDS and breakthroughs including in vitro fertilization. In addition, HeLa cells are currently used in vital research for COVID-19 response efforts.”
Honoring Henrietta Lacks
On Monday, the family of Ms. Lacks, along with attorney Benjamin Crump, joined community leaders for the unveiling of the design.
“Today, here in Roanoke Virginia at Lacks Plaza, we acknowledge that she was not only significant, she was literate and she is as relevant as any historic figure in the world today,” said Ben Crump, the Lacks family attorney.
In the meantime, other institutions have also made efforts to honor the life and legacy of Ms. Lacks.
In 2019, the city of Baltimore designated October 4th as Henrietta Lacks Day to recognize her contributions to the field of medical science. And at their ninth annual symposium, the Institute for Clinical and Translational Research (ICTR) at Johns Hopkins University announced that it would be renaming one of its research buildings in her honor.
On their website, Johns Hopkins states, “In all, the project aims to direct 30% of addressable spend to minority-owned and women-owned businesses and 20% to local business enterprises, outpacing Johns Hopkins’ existing economic inclusion commitments. The design process will continue through 2022, with construction beginning in January 2023. The building is expected to be completed in 2024, with an opening celebration planned for spring 2025.”
With regards to the unveiling in Roanoke, her grandson Ron Lacks said the effort to honor his grandmother had been a long time coming. “This means a lot to my family,” he said, adding that he was looking forward to seeing “the sculpture that will honor her forever in this beautiful city of Roanoke.”