Henrietta Lacks, who literally changed the world of medicine, spent her childhood in Clover in Halifax County.
And Halifax County spent the weekend—Lacks’s birthday weekend—commemorating her life and legacy. The weekend culminated Monday morning with a kick-off fundraiser for a statue of Lacks to be erected in South Boston’s Constitution Square.
The Henrietta Lacks Hometown Initiative was also launched at the fundraising event, which was held at The Prizery in South Boston. This initiative is a collaboration between the Lacks family and the NAACP chapter of Halifax County-South Boston to honor Lacks’ legacy in her hometown.
“Other people recognized her all over the world, but she wasn’t recognized here, where she’s from,” said Alfred Lacks Carter, Jr., grandson of Henrietta Lacks, during a panel portion of the event.
The story of Lacks’ legacy begins in 1951, when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. During a biopsy, a sample of her cancer cells was collected without her knowledge.
Doctors soon realized that Lacks’ cells were different from most other people’s: Instead of dying, they reproduced indefinitely. Since then, this line of cells, now called “HeLa” cells after the first two letters of Lacks’ first and last name, has been pivotal to medical research — and Lacks has been called “the mother of modern medicine.”
HeLa cells were used to develop the polio vaccine and have been involved in research into AIDS, cancer, COVID-19, HPV and many other conditions long after Lacks’ death, eight months after her diagnosis.
It wouldn’t have been standard practice to get a patient’s consent before a cell sample was taken in 1951, a time when many hospitals wouldn’t even treat black patients. So, despite her monumental contribution to medicine, neither Henrietta Lacks nor her family were compensated.
“While Henrietta’s cells launched a multi-billion dollar industry selling human biological materials, to date her family has never received any of the revenue generated by HeLa cells,” reads the website for HELA100, a family-led initiative that began on Lacks. ‘ 100th anniversary in 2020.
In fact, Lacks’ family was not aware of the immortalized line of cells until decades after the first sample was collected.
The consensual cell sample and lack of compensation remain sticking points in this story. How do we reconcile the categorical good that HeLa cells have done with the violation from which they emerged?
“That’s the ongoing battle,” Hope Harris-Gayles, co-chair of the Henrietta Lacks Hometown Initiative, said in an interview. “We just have to get it, get it done. And let that be a springboard for conversations we can have with the medical community and education and different stakeholder groups. Because there are certainly many that we don’t want to repeat.”
But the Lacks family plans to do more than just have conversations.
In October 2021, on the anniversary of Henrietta Lacks’ death, they filed a lawsuit for unjust enrichment against Boston-based pharmaceutical company Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc.
“These drug companies make billions of dollars annually,” Carter said. “One company made $40 billion last year alone, and its own children couldn’t afford health care. Her own children were not placed in proper nursing homes and did not receive proper hospitalization. So we’re working to rectify this and we’ll keep going.”
The judge has heard from both sides and legal teams are discussing next steps, said Shyrea Thompson, chief associate for HELA100 and representative of the Lacks family.
The family should know the outcome of the case within the next 60 days, Carter said.
“We hope to set a standard, set a precedent, that you can’t take people’s property and take advantage of it, and then not reimburse the people you took it from,” he said in a post-panel interview. .
And since Thermo Fisher isn’t the only company to benefit from the HeLa cell, it won’t be the only lawsuit, Carter said.
“This will be the first of many,” he said, quoting one of the family’s attorneys, Chris Seeger. “Thermo Fisher shouldn’t feel alone, because they’ll be getting company soon.”
And there are other efforts to right this injustice, including educating the Halifax community and bringing some of the economic success of the HeLa cells to its birthplace.
The education part should have happened long ago, said Barbara Coleman-Brown, president of the local NAACP branch and one of the early leaders in the effort to raise awareness about Lacks’ story in Halifax.
“It’s urgent because it should have happened decades ago,” she said.
Coleman-Brown joined Carter, Harris-Gayles and Thompson on the panel, alongside Victoria Baptiste, a great-granddaughter of Lacks who was inspired in part by the medical injustice in her family to become a nurse, and Betty Adams, executive director of the Southern Center for Higher Education in Virginia.
Adams drew attention to the fact that Lacks, as an adult, left Halifax for Baltimore, Maryland, to seek economic advancement.
“We are committed to providing educational training so that people don’t have to leave our community,” she said. “Through [collaboration]we can offer everything from a GED to a PhD here in South Boston, Virginia.”
Adams also said SVHEC is working with the county’s family and industrial development authority to bring a science, education and cancer research center named after Lacks to the community.
The General Assembly passed a bill in 2018 to make this possible. It was sponsored by Senator Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, and Del. Jim Edmunds, R-Halifax County. Unfortunately, the pandemic has delayed these plans, although they are still in the works, Adams said.
And Thompson added that an effort is underway to bring innovation from the HeLa cells directly into the community as well.
“Her cells have created all this innovation in rural and urban communities and in different countries, but we’re not getting access to many of those innovations first,” Thompson said. “The family has worked hard to have conversations about not only access to those innovations, but also jobs. Why can’t we produce and create these innovations in our own community?”
In the meantime, the focus is on meeting the $100,000 fundraising goal for the statue. If all goes according to plan, the statue will be erected in the fall of 2023, making South Boston one of the few places in the country to have a statue of a black woman.
This representation is important, Harris-Gayles said.
“Hopefully a child will see the image and learn more about [Lacks’] story, and maybe it will inspire them to study medicine,” Harris-Gayles said. “Who knows? The person who is curing cancer could be in school right now here in Halifax and hopefully learning about Henrietta Lacks’ story will help them move forward.”
Lacks’ hometown of Roanoke is also working on a statue of her, although the Hometown Initiative in Halifax is a more formal partnership with the Lacks family.
The family is more interested in Halifax, as Lacks moved from Roanoke at a very young age, though Thompson said they are “honored” by the efforts in Roanoke.
“From the age of two until her death, Clover was her hometown,” Coleman-Brown says. “She didn’t remember Roanoke.”
Harris-Gayles said a statue of Lacks will be an important symbol for the community.
“Who we commemorate and who we honor says a lot about a place, about a group or society,” she said. “The more representation we can bring to that process, it just goes to show that we are a truly diverse and inclusive place and we celebrate everyone’s contribution.”
The Lacks family certainly celebrated the contribution of their ancestors, who had a birthday party. Family members who were unable to attend sent in videos to wish Henrietta Lacks a happy 102nd birthday.
Of the relatives who could attend, Lawrence Lacks, Henrietta’s only surviving son, was the eldest. He was accompanied by Carter, Baptiste, Veronica Robinson, Larry Lacks and the children of these relatives.
The attendees concluded the event by singing Happy Birthday and dancing, one of Henrietta’s favorite activities.
Information on how to donate is available at hela100.org, where you can also find information about other Lacks family initiatives, such as HelaUnite and the Henrietta Lacks House of Healing, a transition home for men recently released from prison.
“We’re going to get through this and I’m committed to doing everything I can to see this image posted here in South Boston,” said Larry Lacks.