Born under a star: Roanoke native Nelson Harris grew up in Raleigh Court, attended Virginia Heights Baptist Church (now Heights Community Church, where he's pastor) and graduated from Patrick Henry High School. He's pictured in his office at the church under a painting of downtown Roanoke by Sheila Wiley. Randy Walker photo.

From its inception in 1882, Roanoke was known as a railroad town. Less well known is the city’s role in the history of modern medicine. Early developments in the Star City continue to have major, worldwide implications.

Nelson Harris wants people to recognize and remember Roanoke’s medical legacy. That’s why Harris submitted a request for the state to commemorate the birthplace of Henrietta Lacks with a historical marker. 

Henrietta Lacks’ birthplace once stood on 12th Street SW, in space now occupied by Perry Park. Randy Walker photo.

In June the Virginia Department of Historic Resources approved 15 new historical markers, including one for Lacks’ birthplace at 28 12th St. S.W. The house no longer exists; the location is now part of Perry Park. 

In June the state approved the following text for the birthplace marker:

Henrietta Lacks was born Loretta Pleasant on 1 Aug. 1920 in a house at this site. Her parents, John and Eliza Pleasant, had moved the family to Norfolk Ave. and 11th St. by 1923. After her mother’s death in 1924, she lived with relatives in Clover, VA. She married David Lacks in 1941 and had five children. On 4 Oct. 1951, she died of cervical cancer in Baltimore. Tissue was removed for research without permission, as was typical before such practices were abolished. Lacks’s cells, known as the HeLa line, were the first human cells to multiply indefinitely in a laboratory. Used by scientists worldwide, her cells have contributed to many medical breakthroughs. Lacks is buried in Halifax County.

“This is the sixth historic marker I’ve worked on with two more in the pipeline,” Harris said in an interview at Heights Community Church in Roanoke’s Grandin Village, where he is the pastor. 

Harris, 57, is a former councilman and mayor. A student of local history, he has 14 books to his credit. His most recent volume is the 662-page “The Roanoke Valley in the 1940s.”

Nelson Harris with Ramona Taylor and Oliver Hill, Jr., at the dedication of the Oliver Hill, Sr., marker on Gilmer Avenue in northwest Roanoke in 2018. Courtesy Nelson Harris.

His sideline in historical markers began when he read an editorial in The Roanoke Times lamenting the limbo-like status of the historical marker for pioneering Black attorney Oliver Hill. The sign had been approved by the state but lacked funding.

Harris called Jennifer Loux, highway marker program manager at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

“I said, ‘Well, Jennifer, I’m going to take this on,’ and so I sent out some emails and made some phone calls, and people were like, “Well, yeah, yeah, absolutely.’ And so I started about 9:30 one morning, and by 3 o’clock that afternoon, the money had been pledged and we were done. So I told Jennifer, ‘It’s a go.’ So that kind of gave me an entree into the whole historic marker situation.”

After that success, Harris turned to Roanoke’s two pioneering rescue squads.

“One was the Roanoke Life Saving and First Aid Crew, because they were the first all-volunteer rescue squad in the United States. So, worked on that one and then simultaneously worked on the Hunton Life Saving and First Aid crew, which was the first all-Black volunteer rescue squad in the United States.”

Harris contacted Kay Strickland, chief development officer of Carilion Clinic Foundation. The foundation agreed to underwrite the Hunton marker and part of the Roanoke Life Saving marker. “I did all the research and legwork and they provided the money,” Harris said.

Next on Harris’ list was Burrell Memorial Hospital, which, during the era when even medicine was segregated, served Black patients from Roanoke and surrounding counties. Again, Harris researched and submitted the proposal to the state, and Carilion Clinic Foundation provided the funding.. 

Proposals for new markers can be submitted by individuals or organizations. The Department of Historic Resources approves five new markers per quarter, Loux said. Sponsors must pay the approximately $3,000 manufacturing cost, and the locality must agree to install and maintain the marker.

Loux said she didn’t know when the Lacks marker might be ready. The markers are fabricated by Sewah Studios in Ohio, which has a backlog.

Harris “has this great talent for identifying facets of Roanoke history that are not only locally significant to the community, but also significant on a sometimes statewide or even national level,” Loux said. “And these may be people or institutions or events that haven’t gotten the attention that they deserve.”

“Roanoke really has some landmark historical factors where health care is concerned,” Strickland said, mentioning the markers for the Roanoke Life Saving Crew and the Hunton Life Saving Crew. “And now this Henrietta Lacks one which, of course, changed the direction of medicine. And the fact that she’s from here is incredible. So we were thrilled to be able to document this in perpetuity.”

Harris’s interest in the valley’s history isn’t limited to medicine. The state has approved his proposal for a marker for Norvel Lee, a boxer, Olympic gold medalist and civil rights pioneer from Botetourt County. Arrested in 1948 for sitting in a whites-only section of a train, Lee took the case to the Virginia Supreme Court, and won. 

Harris has other proposals in the pipeline. 

One is for the Gainsboro Branch Library, the state’s first public library for Blacks west of Norfolk. Longtime librarian Virginia Lee stored “what were considered by white politicians in the 1940s, as being kind of inflammatory Black literature and Black newspapers and whatnot. She stored those secretly, in the basement of the Gainsboro Library.”

When judging the merit of marker submissions, the Department of Historic Resources awards points for submissions that address “the history of a community that has been marginalized or underrepresented,” according to its website.

“My interest is in the entirety of Roanoke Valley history,” Harris said, “but if I can help document and promote histories that have been largely overlooked, such as our region’s Black history, then it provides even more motivation for me.”

Harris is also working on a marker for Virginia Western Community College, which opened in 1966. “So I’ve submitted that application, really, not only to kind of mark Virginia Western as being the [state’s] first community college to open, but really to mark the origination of the Virginia community college system itself, which, of course, now has 23 member institutions.”

At an age when many men are beginning to think about what they’ll leave behind, Harris said his historical work  “does create a sense of a little bit of a personal legacy, that after I’m gone, my books are still hanging out there. The markers are still in place. And so the work that I’ve done hopefully remains long after me, and helps inform and educate, enlighten, and in some cases entertain, about our community.”

Randy Walker is a musician and freelance writer in Roanoke. He received a bachelor's degree in journalism...