Henrietta Lacks, who quite literally changed the world of medicine, spent her childhood in Clover in Halifax County.
And Halifax County spent the weekend – Lacks’ birthday weekend – commemorating her life and legacy. The weekend culminated in a kickoff fundraising event Monday morning for a statue of Lacks to be erected at Constitution Square in South Boston.
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 Halifax County-South Boston NAACP Chapter to honor Lacks’ legacy specifically in her hometown.
“Other people were recognizing her around the world, but she wasn’t being 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 cancerous cells were collected without her knowledge.
Doctors quickly realized that Lacks’ cells were unlike those of most other humans: 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 names, have been crucial 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 on AIDS, cancer, COVID-19, HPV, and many other conditions, long after Lacks’ death, eight months after her diagnosis.
It would not have been standard practice to get a patient’s consent before collecting a cell sample in 1951, a time when many hospitals would not even treat Black patients. So, despite her monumental contribution to medicine, neither Henrietta Lacks nor her family were compensated.
“Even though Henrietta’s cells launched a multi-billion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, to date, her family has never received any of the revenues HeLa cells generated,” reads the website for HELA100, a family-led initiative that began on Lacks’ 100th birthday in 2020.
In fact, Lacks’ family was unaware of the immortalized line of cells until decades after the initial sample was collected.
The non-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 that they were borne out of?
“That’s the continuing struggle,” said Hope Harris-Gayles, co-chair of the Henrietta Lacks Hometown Initiative, in an interview. “We just have to address it, tackle it head on. And let that be a springboard for conversations that we can have with the medical community and education and various stakeholder groups. Because there are certainly lots that we don’t want to repeat.”
But the Lacks family plans to do more than just have conversations.
They filed a lawsuit on the grounds of unjust enrichment against Boston-based pharmaceutical company Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. in October 2021, on the anniversary of Henrietta Lacks’ death.
“These pharmaceutical companies are making billions of dollars annually,” Carter said. “One company made $40 billion just last year alone, and her own children couldn’t afford healthcare. Her own children weren’t put in proper nursing homes and getting proper hospitalization. So we’re working to make this right and we’re going to keep on pushing forward.”
The judge has heard from both parties and legal teams are talking about next steps, said Shyrea Thompson, lead collaborator for HELA100 and representative for 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 cannot take people’s property and benefit from it, and then not compensate the people that you took it from,” he said in an interview after the panel.
And as Thermo Fisher is not the only company that has profited from the HeLa cell, this will not be the only lawsuit, Carter said.
“This is going to be the first of many,” he said, quoting one of the family’s attorneys, Chris Seeger. “Thermo Fisher shouldn’t feel alone, because they’re going to have company real soon.”
And there are other efforts to try to rectify this injustice, including educating the Halifax community and bringing some of the economic success of the HeLa cells to her hometown.
The education portion is long overdue, said Barbara Coleman-Brown, president of the local NAACP chapter and one of the initial leaders in the effort to raise awareness about Lacks’ story in Halifax.
“It is urgent, because it should’ve been done 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 to be a nurse partially by the medical injustice in her family, and Betty Adams, executive director of the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center.
Adams drew attention to the fact that Lacks, as an adult, left Halifax for Baltimore, Maryland, to seek economic advancement.
“We’re doing everything that we can to provide educational training, so that people don’t have to leave our community,” she said. “Through [collaboration], we’re able to offer everything from a GED to a PhD right here in South Boston, Virginia.”
Adams also said that SVHEC is working with the family and the county’s Industrial Development Authority to bring a science and education and cancer research center, named after Lacks, to the community.
The General Assembly passed a bill in 2018 to make this happen. It was sponsored by Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, and Del. Jim Edmunds, R-Halifax County. Unfortunately, the pandemic delayed these plans, though they are still in the works, Adams said.
And Thompson added that there is an effort to bring innovation from the HeLa cells directly into the community as well.
“Her cells have created all this innovation in rural communities and urban communities and in various countries, but we don’t get access first to many of those innovations,” Thompson said. “The family has been working to have conversations about not only bringing access to those innovations, but also jobs. Why can’t we manufacture and create these innovations in our own community?”
In the meantime, the focus is on meeting the fundraising goal of $100,000 for the statue. If all goes to plan, the statue will be erected in the fall of 2023, making South Boston one of the few places in the country with a statue of a Black woman.
This representation is important, said Harris-Gayles.
“Hopefully some child will see the statue and learn about [Lacks’] story, and maybe it’ll inspire them to go into medicine,” Harris-Gayles said. “Who knows? The person who cures cancer could be in school right now here in Halifax and hopefully, learning about Henrietta Lacks’ story will push them forward.”
Roanoke, Lacks’ birthplace, is also working to erect a statue of her, though the Hometown Initiative in Halifax is a more formal collaboration 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 two-years-old until she died, Clover was her hometown,” Coleman-Brown said. “She didn’t remember Roanoke.”
Harris-Gayles said that a statue of Lacks will be an important symbol for the community.
“Who we memorialize and who we honor says a lot about a place, about a group or society,” she said. “The more representation that we can bring to that process, it just shows that we are truly a diverse and inclusive place and we celebrate everyone’s contribution.”
The Lacks family certainly celebrated their ancestors’ contribution, which had a birthday party component. Family members that could not attend sent in videos wishing Henrietta Lacks a happy 102nd birthday.
Of those family members that could attend, Lawrence Lacks, Henrietta’s only surviving son, was the oldest. He was joined by Carter, Baptiste, Veronica Robinson, Larry Lacks, and the children of these family members.
Attendees closed out the event by singing Happy Birthday and dancing, one of Henrietta’s favorite activities.
Information on how to donate is available on hela100.org, where you can also find information on other initiatives by the Lacks family, such as HelaUnite and the Henrietta Lacks House of Healing, a transitional house for men who have been recently released from incarceration.
“We’re going to see this through, and I’m committed to do all I can to see this statue put here in South Boston,” said Larry Lacks.