ROANOKE, Va. (WFXR) — Imagine not being recognized because of the color of your skin. That was a reality for many people in the mid-1900s, including Henrietta Lacks, despite her life-saving contribution to medical research.
“They didn’t want white people to not take the vaccine because it came from a black woman so they tried to make her sound as white as possible,” said Henrietta Lacks’ grandson, Ron Lacks.
Henrietta Lacks was born in the Star City. The married mother of five died in 1951 at 31 years old after a battle with cervical cancer. Doctors took samples of her tumor without her knowledge or permission and made a shocking discovery.
“My grandmother’s cells are immortal. They’ll be around here when I’m gone, my great great great grandchildren are gone. Henrietta Lacks’ cells will still be here,” Ron Lacks said.
Henrietta Lacks’ immortal cells became known as HeLa (short for Henrietta Lacks) cells, and have been used in tens of thousands of medical studies paving the way for advancements in HIV, in vitro fertilization, gene mapping, cloning, and cancer treatments. HeLa cells were also used to create a vaccine for one of the world’s deadliest diseases, Polio. And those same cells are being used right now to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
“I guarantee you that you’re benefiting in some way from HeLa cells,” said Ron Lacks. “You know that wrinkle cream that you put on your face to make those wrinkles disappear? Henrietta, I mean HeLa cells. Lipstick. Oh yes! I mean, even her cells have been in space. They wanted to see what it would do to human cells.”
Despite researchers relying heavily on HeLa cells, the identity of the woman behind them was unknown, including to her family, until decades after her death.
“In 1973, my mother uncovered the HeLa cells. She was having lunch with one of her friends and a professor came and my mother’s friends introduced her as Bobette Lacks and the professor said, ‘We’re working with someone named Henrietta Lacks, her cells, and my mother said that’s my mother-in-law. And that’s when we first found out,” said Ron Lacks.
Until July 2021, a plaza located directly across from the City of Roanoke Municipal Building in downtown was called Lee Plaza, named after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Now, the west end of the public space is named Henrietta Lacks Plaza. A fundraising effort is underway to raise $140,000 to build a life-size bronze statue of Henrietta Lacks, a black woman, and have it placed in the exact spot in the plaza where a statue of Lee once stood.
“I think it’s a wonderful thing and I’m glad that we’re able to recognize her,” said Roanoke Vice Mayor Trish White-Body. “I don’t know if you know it or not but she was just recognized by the World Health Organization. The WHO just put a statue in Bristol, UK of Henrietta Lacks honoring her. Certainly, we should have one in her birthplace and that’s here.”
White-Boyd is raising the money as a private citizen but says the city is looking to bring a research team to Roanoke to shed some light on the stories of several local places and people hidden in plain sight, including that of Henrietta Lacks.
“It’s a wonderful ending story about a black woman. You know, it wasn’t a good story in the beginning because she was suffering from cervical cancer but what she has done and her contribution to medical science is amazing,” White-Boyd said.
To Ron Lacks, Henrietta Lacks is amazing simply because she’s his grandmother. He says outside of her immortal cells, she was no different from any other woman.
“She loved looking elegant. She really did. That’s why they talk about her painting her nails and the red lipstick,” Ron Lacks said.
Henrietta Lacks and her late husband, David, were determined to advance the lives of their children. That’s why the couple moved to Baltimore. All the while the biggest opportunity for advancement was Henrietta Lacks herself.
“Henrietta Lacks, to me is my nana. To the world she represents the greatest gift to mankind,” said Ron Lacks.