by Lee Pierre
Roanoke Hidden Histories has met and exceeded its fundraising goal of $160,000 allowing the Henrietta Lacks project to move forward in its mission. Plans involve a sculpture of Lacks, a Roanoke native, born August 1, 1920, who unwillingly provided the world with the HeLa cell fueling decades of lifesaving and life-changing research. The project will incorporate a virtual reality component to be used as an educational tool that is being developed through a partnership with Richmond’s Hidden in Plain Site (HiPS) organization.
Councilman Trish White-Boyd, who spearheaded the project served as mistress of ceremony during the press conference held Monday, Dec.19 downtown at what is presently known as Lacks Plaza. White-Boyd opened proceedings by introducing various officials including members of the Lacks family along with nationally recognized civil rights attorney Ben Crump and members of HiPS.
“I am very excited about this project,” stated Larry Bechtel the sculptor commissioned to build the Lacks statue. “Trish White-Boyd, the power behind this project, contacted me two years ago. Since then, I’ve become acquainted with Henrietta Lacks and made some small models of her. The sculpture is set to be unveiled in October 2023.”
The proceedings involved an unveiling of a portrait of Lacks by local artist Bryce Cobbs from which the sculpture will be fashioned.
“I am very pleased to be able to contribute to this important project in history,” Cobbs said. “It has been an enlightening experience and I’ve learned a lot during the process.”
White-Boyd recognized and thanked her colleagues, volunteers, and other city personnel for their hard work and applauded donors for contributions that led to exceeding the goal. She gave special recognition to Henrietta Lacks’ only living son, Lawrence Lacks, and her grandson, Ron Lacks, for their cooperation and contribution to the effort. “They came all the way from Maryland,” she informed the audience. Also, Regine Coleman, another family member, traveled from South Carolina to attend.
White-Boyd explained “this documentary will uncover some of Roanoke’s dismal, dark, and painful history about an African American woman named Henrietta Lacks. A woman whose cancer cells are the source of the HeLa cell line, the first immortalized cell line, and there is so much more to this story.”
White-Boyd praised the Council’s efforts to honor Lacks by voting with her unanimously to rename the plaza, once Lee Plaza, on which stood a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee that was removed prior to officially designating the area Lacks Plaza.
“The reality to be able to be involved in something as wonderful as this project and to be able to see so many people participate in something that at one time was thought of prior to this particular project as very difficult to do I want to thank all of you who participated,” said Charles Price, Board Chair, Harrison Museum.
Richmond’s Hidden in Plain Site cofounders J. Dontrese Brown and Dean Browell are the developers of the virtual reality exploration of distinct, but easy-to-overlook sites that tell the story of the Black experience throughout history. The group started in Richmond after the death of George Floyd to add to the social justice narrative by lifting the voices of Black Americans.
“Trish reached out to us and asked that we be a part of this project so we’re going to tell six amazing stories about the history of the Black American experience in Roanoke,” Brown said. He proceeded to speak of the gentrification of such areas as the Old Lake Cemetery and how graves of slaves were removed for the development of I-581; the Civic Center that was once a thriving Northeast neighborhood; Henry Street; Burrell Memorial Hospital and Dreamland the only recreation center for Black Americans in Roanoke.
“At all of these sites, people walk by every day not understanding the power of the Black American experience, now they’re going to have an opportunity to experience these narratives to connect you to your city even more. We’re going to talk about these in a way that allows you to traverse through your city differently. We may not change everyone’s mind in perspective, but you would never walk through this city the same way again,” he continued. Brown went on enthusiastically claiming it as “the most powerful project” that Hidden in Plain Site has engaged in.
Flying in for the occasion was none other than famed attorney Ben Crump, hailed as one of the most effective high-profile litigators currently practicing. Crump thanked the City of Roanoke for what they were doing for the Lacks family and for bringing the wrongdoing of Henrietta Lacks to the forefront.
“I want to thank you, Mr. Mayor, and all the leaders for making this finally happen to right the wrong of 70 years ago! As Ron (Lacks) and I have often discussed, his grandmother was disrespected by John Hopkins University and the medical profession itself, as an insignificant, irrelevant, illiterate, and inferior Black woman but today here in Roanoke at Lacks Plaza we acknowledge that she was not only significant, she was literate and is as relevant as any historical figure in the world today,” said Crump.
“When you consider issues of genetic justice, reproductive rights, and stem cell research there are a lot of historic figures who we like to suggest that their contributions changed the world, well in the case of Henrietta lacks we have objective evidence. If I were in the court of law, I would say we have empirical evidence that HeLa cells literally changed the world,” Crump stated. “Every medical advancement her cells have helped to produce, used research based on this Black woman to make the world better, to have a better quality of life, and so I think it’s very safe to say, if you’re living today not just in Virginia not just in America but in the world that we all have a little Henrietta Lacks in us.”
Finishing strong Crump spoke of Virginia and its role in the past regarding the commemoration of historical statues representing symbols of division as that of General Lee.
“We will have a statue of a Black woman who brings us all together and as long as we continue to benefit from her immortal cells that continue to regenerate every 24 hours and are used as part of the medical profession to better lives, every time one of her cells regenerates, I want you all to know that Henrietta lives, Henrietta lives, Henrietta lives,” he chanted loudly as the crowd joined him repeating together.
Henrietta’s grandson, Ron, humbly explained how he would sit down and talk to his father about his grandmother feeling it was something that needed to be done.
“My dad is the last living child of Henrietta and he had tons of stories to tell but it was sad for him to talk about his mother until he realized the importance of it all. I tell the story about how she came from John Hopkins with the radiation bars inserted in her–how he saw her deteriorate and slowly die.” Henrietta Lacks died October 4, 1951, at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, MD.
Mayor Sherman Lea Sr. expressed his gratitude for being part of a city that is progressive and remarked on the buildings in downtown Roanoke named after other prominent Black citizens adding, “We’re going to have a statute that recognizes a tremendous lady, Henrietta Lacks! What a progressive, inclusive city we have.”
The event closed with the unveiling of Cobbs’s life-size portrait of Lacks from which Blacksburg sculptor Larry Bechtel will design the bronze statue to be placed in Lacks Plaza located across from the City Municipal Building in October 2023.