In July 2020, a 70-year-old veteran from Roanoke, Virginia, knocked down and subsequently destroyed the Robert E. Lee monument spire in the city’s Lee Plaza in an effort to quell mounting emotions during the nation-wide protests sparked by the state-sanctioned murder of George Floyd. A year later, the Roanoke City Council voted unanimously to change Lee Plaza’s name to “Freedom Plaza,” and to commemorate the story and legacy of Henrietta Lacks, a Black Roanoke woman whose cancer cell samples were taken without her consent to be researched, even today, for modern medical breakthroughs.
On December 19, Roanoke artist Bryce Cobbs revealed his life-size, powerful preliminary sketch of Henrietta Lacks beaming with her hands crossed over her blazer during a brief ceremony at the plaza to announce the first phase of the project. Some of Lacks’s relatives, including her only surviving son, Lawrence Lacks, her grandson, Ron Lacks, and the family’s attorney, Ben Crump, were among the some hundred ceremony attendees.
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Larry Bechtel, a sculptor from Blacksburg, was selected by city’s vice-mayor Patricia White-Boyd through Roanoke Hidden Histories to translate Cobbs’s drawing into a sculpture that’s set for permanent placement in Fall of 2023. Bechtel told Hyperallergic that he hopes to work with a female descendent of the Lacks family to better capture Henrietta’s likeness in his sculpture process.
“I knew the sculpture would be important for Roanoke; I had no idea it would reverberate so widely,” Bechtel said. “It comes at a transformational moment, in the wake of the removal of many Confederate monuments.”
Bechtel was particularly struck by the juxtaposition of the commission coming together just before Christmas, likening Lacks’s experiences to that of Mary, mother of Jesus. “Both women lived in obscurity, and both gave to the world the gift of life,” he told Hyperallergic. “Both stories cross back and forth between actual and mythic reality.”
The project is funded and orchestrated by the Roanoke Hidden Histories Initiative in conjunction with the Harrison Museum for African American Culture.
Henrietta Lacks’s story was fraught with inequalities across racial politics and healthcare. In Rebecca Skloot’s 2010 novel The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, we learned that Lacks, a Black Roanoke native born in 1920, dropped out of school in sixth grade to work with her family on their tobacco farm. She was 14 when she had her son, Lawrence, the first of five children. Lacks gave birth to her last son months before her terminal diagnosis of cervical cancer sent her to Johns Hopkins hospital in 1951 — the only institution in the area treating Black patients at the time.
During her treatment, her attending physician collected two samples of tissue from her body without her consent and handed them over to the hospital lab for further testing. When Lacks succumbed to full-body metastasis at age 31 that year, she was buried in an unmarked grave in the family cemetery, none the wiser that part of her had survived and was growing at an unusual rate. Johns Hopkins physician and researcher George Otto Grey observed that Lacks’s sample “immortal” in that it was peculiarly adept at multiplying and staying alive for long periods compared to others, proving to be an effective substrate for extended research.
Lacks’s cells, known as HeLa cells for the first two letters of her first and last name, continued to grow in number and in demand. By 1954, Jonas Salk had used the cells for developing the polio vaccine, and the rest of the medical research industry was grasping at samples for experimental research. The Lacks family was not made aware of the extensive use of HeLa cells until the 1970’s, and became concerned about their medical and personal privacy as well as the lack of financial compensation. In October 2021, the Lacks family filed a lawsuit demanding the net profits from Thermo Fisher Scientific’s sale and use of HeLa cells without Henrietta Lacks’s consent.
Additional public gestures to memorialize Lacks include the Henrietta Lacks Walking Tour in Baltimore, Maryland, a life-size statue at the University of Bristol in England, and a renovation of the Lacks family home in the historically Black housing development of Turner Station, in Maryland’s Baltimore County.