Groups in South Boston and Roanoke are doing the same thing: They’re both raising money to erect statues to Henrietta Lacks, the woman whose cells were scraped out of her body in 1951 (without her family’s knowledge) and used to generate a line of cells that has been considered vital to medical research since.
Both localities seek to honor someone with local ties – Lacks was born in Roanoke but grew up in Halifax County, so both places can claim a connection.
Both communities are also on the verge of making history: Each, if successful in their fundraising efforts, will become one of the few places in the country to erect a statue to a Black woman. (Interestingly, there’s a statue of Lacks in Great Britain that was dedicated last year at the University of Bristol,as a way to illustrate the life sciences but, until Roanoke and Halifax County come through, none in in either the place she was born and the place where she grew up).
Our public statuary tells an incomplete story of our history. A 2011 survey by the Smithsonian Institution counted 5,193 public outdoor sculptures of specific people around the country. Of those, 394 – less than 8% – depicted women. The study did not say how many of those sculptures show Black women, but we probably don’t need a study to tell us it’s not very many.
Those numbers have surely changed since then – obviously some statues have come down (we all know about those) and some have gone up – but it’s fair to say the basic demographics haven’t changed very much.
Our statuary reflects our preferred way of telling history – through politics and wars, which gives preference to politicians and the military, two fields from which women were historically excluded. Politics and wars are certainly important in shaping our world but they are not the only ways things get changed.
The first statue of an American woman did not go up until 1884, according to the Smithsonian. That one was in New Orleans – to Margaret Haughery, a local philanthropist known as “the mother of orphans.” When the few statues depicting women did go up, they tended to be mythical or representational – the Statue of Liberty being the most famous. I’ve been unable to determine when the first statue to a Black woman in the United States was dedicated, but it does appear that the Black woman most frequently in statue form is Harriet Tubman. She has at least six statues across the country – in Arkansas, Arizona, Georgia, Massachusetts, Michigan and New York. (The woman most frequently depicted in American statues is Sacagawea, the Shoshone teenager who aided the Lewis and Clark expension. She has 16 statues, according to Lifetime. A French teenager from the 15th century — Joan of Arc — came in second with nine. Lifetime, by the way, came up with a much lower count of statues than the Smithsonian did but Lifetime also had stricter rules. It only counted statues on public grounds.)
It’s not been until relatively recently that there’s been any significant push to put up statues to women – and you won’t be surprised to learn that the vast majority of those show white women. One national example was the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. The original memorial, dedicated in 1982, consisted simply of the famous black granite wall of names. That proved controversial for lots of reasons – some felt it was too depressing, others objected to the lack of an actual statue. That led to the addition of “The Three Servicemen,” a bronze statue of three soldiers – one white, one Black, one Hispanic, looking off into the distance. That appeased some but led to more controversy: What about all the women who served in Vietnam? In 1993, another statue was added to the complex – the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, which shows three uniformed women tending a wounded soldier. That produced even more controversy on the grounds that it was both incomplete and inaccurate – many women served in military roles besides nurses, and those military nurses tended to be in field hospitals, not out on the battlefield.
People take art seriously.
In Virginia, there have been two big efforts to make up for the imbalance in our statuary. In 2008, the Virginia Civil Rights Monument went up on the grounds of the State Capitol. It shows 18 figures – some male, some female. Some are specific people, others more representational. One of the specific people featured is Barbara Johns, the 16-year-old who led the student walkout from Moton High School in Prince Edward County in 1951 (the same year that Lacks was dying of cancer). From what I can determine, that appears to have been the first public statue of a Black woman anywhere in Virginia. (If I’m mistaken, please let me know.) While this may seem late, historically speaking, Virginia was years ahead of many other places. Chicago didn’t erect its first statue to a Black woman until last year – journalist and civil rights advocate Ida Wells-Barnett. Philadelphia didn’t put up its first statue to a Black woman until this year, and then it was a temporary one – of the aforementioned Tubman, part of a traveling exhibit across the country. A permanent statue to Tubman for Philadelphia has now been commissioned.
By contrast, Virginia can claim multiple statues to Black women.
A statue of banker Maggie Walker went up in Richmond in 2017.
In 2019, the Virginia Women’s Monument was dedicated at the State Capitol. It, like the civil rights memorial, shows multiple women. Twelve figures are planned; so far seven are in place. Two of those 12 are Black women. The statue to Elizabeth Keckly is already in place. She was born into slavery in Dinwiddie County, became a dressmaker for Mary Todd Lincoln, and during the Civil War oversaw the Contraband Relief Association that aided slaves escaping to freedom. Still to come is one to Henrico County educator Virginia Randolph.
Also in 2019, Hampton University opened its Historic Legacy Park, which includes 11 statues of important historical figures, both Black and white. Of those, three are Black women: Rosa Parks (who ideally needs no identifier), educator Mary Peake, and Mary Jackson, a Hampton graduate who became NASA’s first Black female engineer. (Her story was featured in the book and movie “Hidden Figures.”)
In 2021, the Emancipation and Freedom Monument was dedicated in Richmond, described as the first state-funded statue to emancipation anywhere in the U.S. It includes a woman, but not a specific one. The University of Virginia and the College of William & Mary have memorials to the enslaved laborers who worked at those colleges, but neither depicts human figures.
It’s possible there are other statues of Black women in Virginia, but I’ve not been able to find any mention of them. Even if there are, the basic point remains the same: There aren’t many, either here or nationwide. The statues of Henrietta Lacks in South Boston and Roanoke won’t be the first in the state but they will certainly be among the first – and the one in Roanoke would be the first west of the Blue Ridge.
Roanoke has an interesting story to tell because it’s a city without a lot of statues. Unlike many Southern cities, Roanoke never had a Confederate statue in front of the courthouse, which has spared it a lot of grief over the past few years. Instead, the only sculpture outside the courthouse is a piece of modern art that looks like a loaf of French bread. I can only surmise that Roanoke’s lack of Confederate statues stems from the fact that the city wasn’t around during the Civil War, although that doesn’t explain how Roanoke avoided erecting such statues during the late 1800s and early 1900s when many others – such as those on Richmond’s Monument Avenue – went up. In terms of public, outdoor statues – the criteria the Smithsonian uses – there are only three in Roanoke and only one of those depicts an actual person. There are generic statues of police, and firefighters, and then one of Martin Luther King Jr. That King statue appears to be the only King statue in the state. Norfolk has a King memorial but it’s a column, not a structure that portrays a person. The Roanoke statue is fascinating because the display includes an audio component; press a button and you can hear recordings of some of King’s most famous speeches.
The fact that Roanoke – a white-majority city on the edge of Appalachia – has what may be Virginia’s only King statue, or any King statue at all, seems quite remarkable. The fact that someday soon its only two statues of actual people will both be Black historical figures seems even moreso.
Roanoke could use more statues – of lots of deserving historical figures. The city has a Holton Plaza downtown dedicated to former Gov. Linwood Holton that seems to cry out for a statue as a centerpiece. If you want a profile in political courage, then Roanoke should carve Caldwell Butler’s profile into stone – as a freshman member of Congress in 1974 he bucked his party to vote to impeach Richard Nixon. And every place that has a statue of a man should be looking through its local history books to see if there aren’t some women who have been overlooked, Black or white.
Lynchburg was the original center of the women’s suffrage movement in Virginia – Orra Langhorne and Elizabeth Otey are historical figures who probably haven’t gotten their due. Through the late 1880s, Langhorne 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. Langhorne’s niece, Otey, later became a prominent campaigner for women’s suffrage in her own right and, after the 19th Amendment was adopted, 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’s 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.
Radford is the unusual city in Virginia that does have a statue to a woman: A statue to frontierswoman Mary Draper Ingles was dedicated in 2016. Smyth County is unusual in a different way. It has a native daughter – entrepreneur, writer and lay leader Laura Copenhaver – who is enshrined in the Virginia Women’s Monument in Richmond but doesn’t have a statue in her hometown. This seems an oversight.
Lastly we come to the case of Johns, the Prince Edward County schoolgirl. A statue of her was chosen to replace the one of Robert E. Lee that Virginia had in the U.S. Capitol. The Office of the Architect of the U.S. Capitol signed off on that in June 2021. Since then, the state Department of Historic Resources “has been going through the lengthy process of sculptor selection,” according to Julie Langan, the department’s director This is an opportunity. Virginia should commission not one but two statues of Johns – one for Washington, one for Farmville.
So who else deserves a statue?
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Status of fund-raising for the Henrietta Lacks statues:
Roanoke: The Roanoke group raising money for a statue of Lacks in Lacks Plaza (formerly Lee Plaza, across from the Municipal Building downtown) has raised $139,000 toward a goal of $160,000, according to Vice Mayor Trish White-Boyd. That figure will also include a documentary. “We are really close to signing the contract with the sculptor,” White-Boyd told Cardinal News last week. Those who wish to donate can send a check to The Harrison Museum of African American Culture, P.O. Box 21054, Roanoke VA 24018 and specifiy “Henrietta Lacks statue” in the subject line. You can also donate online through https://roanokehiddenhistories.org/.
Halifax County: On Monday, the Lacks family kicked off fund-raising toward a goal of $100,000 for a statue in South Boston. Those wishing to donate can send a check to HeLa Hometown Initiative, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, SE Suite 200, Washington, DC 20003 or donate online through https://hela100.org/helahometown.