Roanoke and Halifax County are nearly 100 miles apart but they both can lay claim to the same legacy: Both can claim to be the hometown of Henrietta Lacks, the former as her birthplace, the latter as the place she grew up.
Both are also now in the process of trying to erect a statue to Lacks, who has become famous long after her death in 1951 for the cancer cells taken from her body that, more than six decades later and without her family’s permission, have kept replicating and are now a subject of important medical research into cancer, AIDS and other dread diseases. Jonas Salk used them to develop his famous polio vaccine (a vaccine no one seems to object to).
Spurred on by the best-seller “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” the world – yes, the world – is now seeing a rush to recognize Lacks. There’s a high school named after her in Vancouver, Washington – the Henrietta Lacks Health and Bioscience High School. There’s a park named after her in Baltimore, where she later lived and eventually died from cervical cancer, and a building named after her under construction at Johns Hopkins University, whose hospital treated her and extracted the cells. There’s a historical marker near Clover in Halifax County, a portrait of her jointly owned by the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of African American History. There’s been a movie about her (starring Oprah Winfrey), a play, multiple songs, most recently by the hip-hop duo JJ Doom who sing “We could live forever like Henrietta Lacks cells.” There are awards, days and events in her honor. There’s even an asteroid, officially styled 359426 Lacks.
And soon there might be statues in both Roanoke and Halifax County. In Roanoke, Vice Mayor Trish White-Boyd is leading an effort to raise $140,000 to erect a statue to Lacks, in the newly named Henrietta Lacks Plaza (formerly Lee Plaza) downtown across from the Municipal Building. In Halifax County there’s a Henrietta Lacks Statue Committee that’s been soliciting public reaction to three possible sites and recently recommended Edmunds Park in South Boston.
Two statutes to the same person? Why not? We certainly have multiple statues to other people and it certainly makes sense to have statues to her in the places that can qualify, in different ways, as her hometown. These separate efforts prompt another thought, though: We’ve been so focused lately on which statues should come down that we haven’t paid nearly enough attention to which statues ought to be going up. What statues ought we be erecting? Who is worthy of immortalizing in bronze?
Here’s a partial list to get the conversation started.
1 . Caldwell Butler. The late Republican congressman from Roanoke (1972-1983) is best known for one thing. As a freshman member of Congress, he famously broke with his party to vote to impeach President Richard Nixon in 1974. That’s deserving of a “profile in courage” – and a statue. Butler’s lesson is one worth memorializing in today’s polarized political climate.
2. Laura Copenhaver. The Marion-born educator (she was the first president of the now-departed Marion College) and enthusiastic promoter of the agricultural economy in Southwest Virginia is featured in the Virginia Women’s Monument in Richmond. If she has a statue in Richmond, she ought to have one in her hometown, right?
3. Roy Clark. The “picking and grinning” star of “Hee Haw” was born in Meherrin in Lunenburg County. When he was 11 his family moved to Washington, D.C., but that doesn’t diminish his Southside roots. Henrietta Lacks moved from Roanoke when she was 4 but the city claims her. Clark won the National Banjo Championship when he was 14, won it again at 15, and was a touring musician soon after. Those who only know him through “Hee Haw” only know part of his story. Statues don’t have to just be to political figures or social leaders. Let’s embrace our culture, too.
4. Helen Henderson. The Missouri-born Henderson moved to Buchanan County with her husband, a fellow educator, and was shocked at the poor condition of the local schools. She became such a strong advocate for education that, when the 19th Amendment was passed allowing women to vote, she was persuaded to run for the House of Delegates. In 1921, she became one of the first two women elected to the General Assembly. (Sarah Fain of Norfolk was the other.) Alas, she died young, after just a single term. In 1927, her daughter was elected to succeed her – most of the early women serving in the General Assembly hailed from the western part of the state. Today, a portion of Virginia 80 is named in her honor.
5. Joseph Holmes. He rose from slavery to become a member of the state convention that wrote Virginia’s first post-Civil War constitution, a document that gave us a free public school system and the first elections for county governments. Holmes also was murdered on the steps of the Charlotte County Courthouse. If you don’t know Holmes’ story, check out this story we published last fall when a historical marker to him was dedicated.
6. Linwood Holton. We just finished memorializing the former governor’s place in history after his passing in October at age 98. When he was elected governor in 1969, he was the first Republican to win statewide office since the years following the Civil War. More importantly, though, Holton was a civil rights governor who used his inaugural address to declare “the era of defiance is behind us” and then followed through with actions. He was also an environmental governor, setting in motion the cleanup of state waters that turned Smith Mountain Lake from a cesspool back then to a recreational site (and water source) today. We even have a place to put a Holton statue – Roanoke has a Holton Plaza that notably lacks a centerpiece. Holton, though, lived in Roanoke but grew up in Big Stone Gap – so this might be another case where we need not one but two statues.
7. Barbara Johns. Like Lacks, she didn’t become famous until after her death. As a 16-year-old in 1951, she led the student walkout from the segregated R.R. Moton High School in Farmville. The upshot of the student strike: a lawsuit, handled by the famous Richmond legal duo of Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson, that eventually got folded into another case before the U.S. Supreme Court. We remember that today as the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision that struck down segregation, but one of its many wellsprings was in Prince Edward County, with a strong-minded teenager. A statue of Johns is set to replace one of Robert E. Lee as Virginia’s contribution to the hall of statues in Congress. Why not a second one, though, in Farmville?
8. Orra Langhorne. She grew up in Rockingham County in the 1800s, was educated at what is now Hollins University, then settled in Lynchburg. Through the late 1880s, she was Virginia’s best-known advocate for women’s suffrage – this at a time when Virginia was busy restricting voting rights, not expanding them. She testified before the General Assembly, before Congress. Her work attracted the attention of both The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. If there’s a photo of Langhorne available, I’ve never seen it, so any statue of her would have to be somewhat abstract – even if her work was quite concrete.
9. Norvel Lee. Here’s another figure from history who only recently has gotten his due. Lee grew up near Lick Run area of northern Botetourt County and went on to make history in two ways, neither of which got sufficient attention at the time. In 1948, he figured in a landmark civil rights case, when he refused to give up his seat on a segregated train in Alleghany County. The Virginia Supreme Court ultimately ruled in his favor, chipping away at the segregation laws of the time. Both that year and in 1952, Lee was on the U.S. Olympic team as a boxer – and in the ’52 Helsinki games, he won a gold medal. Some urged him to turn pro. He did not. Instead, he preferred to further his education. He went on to become an educator, a real estate investor in the Washington area and a reserve military officer, finally retiring as a lieutenant colonel. He passed away in 1992 but more recently was the subject of a historical novel, “Norvel,” by Botetourt County author Ken Conklin. Late last year, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources approved a historical marker to Lee. But why not a statue, too? How many other history-making gold medalists do we have? (Of note: Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt County, has introduced a resolution to name U.S. 220 between Eagle Rock and the Alleghany County line in Lee’s honor. Here’s a Lee Highway we can all get behind.)
10. Elizbeth Otey. Lynchburg was a center of the women’s suffrage movement, thanks first to Langhorne and then, later, her niece, Elizabeth Otey. Otey was an unusual woman for her day – she earned a doctorate in economics and went to work for the U.S. Labor Department, where she focused on child labor issues. She later returned to Lynchburg and, after the passage of the 19th Amendment, secured another place in history. In 1921, Otey became one of the first two women to run for statewide office. Otey was the Republican candidate for superintendent of instruction (then an elected position) while Richmond banker Maggie Walker ran for the same position as a nominee of a faction of Black Republicans who had been exiled from the rest of the party. (Walker already has a statue in Richmond, but running for office was the least of her many accomplishments.)
11. Millie Paxton. The 19th Amendment may have allowed women to vote, but Virginia registrars at the time did their best to make sure that only white women registered. That was a challenge for Millie Paxon but one she overcame. She was a Black civic leader in Roanoke – and, given the politics of the times, a Republican – who took it upon herself to register Black women. The Library of Virginia says she was responsible for 655 Black women in Roanoke registering to vote, more than in any other city in Virginia except for Richmond. At the very least, she ought to have a historical marker, but why not think bigger? (She did!) Here’s a variation of the traditional statue: The state that put the 19th Amendment over the top was Tennessee. The train that carried the state’s official certification of the amendment to Washington rolled through Roanoke. How about a statue of Paxton – and maybe other suffragist leaders – looking west, symbolically awaiting the arrival of that train as it passed through on its way to history?
12. Ralph Stanley. Do I really need to explain this one?
In addition to the Lacks statues that have been proposed, those are 12 statues we could use. Are there others I should have mentioned? I’m sure there are — I could have also listed tennis coach Robert Walter Johnson or filmmaker Oscar Micheaux or explorer Thomas Walker, just to name a few — but at least here’s a start. Or maybe I just made a head start on the next 12?
Oh, here’s something else to know: When either Roanoke or Halifax County puts up its statue to Henrietta Lacks, that won’t be the first statue in her honor. The first went up last October at the University of Bristol – that’s the Bristol in Great Britain. It’s said to be the first statue of a Black woman, made by a Black woman, for a public space in the country.