Henrietta Lacks, one of Roanoke’s most famous natives, only lived in the Star City for three years.
Her legacy, though not a product of deliberate intention, is incalculably immense in scope. Cells harvested from her body before her death from cervical cancer in 1951 have been essential to major medical breakthroughs for more than 70 years — and the use of those cells without her family’s knowledge brought scrutiny to issues of bioethics and the historical treatment of Black Americans by the medical system.
Soon a plan honoring Henrietta Lacks’ legacy will come to fruition in Roanoke, planting a monument intended to stand far longer than her time in the city of her birth, far longer than her tragically short life.
“I want very much for her strength, her resilience, her optimism to come through,” said Larry Bechtel, the Blacksburg sculptor charged with the task of realizing Henrietta Lacks in three dimensions. “It is important to me that the Lacks family feel proud of this sculpture, that it shines brightly for Henrietta, and for them.”
In Roanoke, Bechtel is best known for the “Officer Down” sculpture in front of the Roanoke Police Department on Campbell Avenue, a piece of art that portrays a real incident in which a policeman gives comfort to a colleague who has been fatally wounded in the line of duty. The surviving officer described the scene to Bechtel and modeled for him.
For Bechtel’s newest, highest-profile work, sources he worked with included a series of drawings by 26-year-old Roanoke portrait artist and painter Bryce Cobbs, who worked from the scant photographs available to imagine Lacks from multiple angles as she strides forward with eyes raised skyward.
“I wanted to do something that screamed dignity and honor, something that when you would look at it will give you the question of, ‘Who is this person?’ if you didn’t already know,” Cobbs said.
One of Lacks’ great-granddaughters, Courtnee Lacks-Brown, also modeled for Bechtel, her face and head rendered in clay and plaster busts that he could use as references. “We did this over Zoom,” the artist explained.
Returning history to light
The unveiling of the statue at 11 a.m. Wednesday — the 72nd anniversary of Henrietta Lacks’ death — will mark the culmination of years of planning and a private fundraising campaign that raised about $184,000. Members of her family are expected to attend.
With the Harrison Museum of African American Culture in Roanoke acting as fiscal agent, the campaign not only funded the statue, but made possible the creation of an interactive website called “Hidden in Plain Site: Roanoke” that provides windows into Black communities, businesses and establishments that thrived in the Star City before urban renewal policies leveled and relocated them. [Read more about the creators of “Hidden in Plain Site” in Cardinal’s previous coverage.]
The statue dedication will take place in Henrietta Lacks Plaza on the south side of the Roanoke Municipal Building. The Roanoke City Council voted unanimously to rename the plaza in 2021. For 64 years prior it was known as Lee Plaza, after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. In 2020, an obelisk in the plaza that honored Lee was toppled off its base.
The removal of the Lee monument and the renaming of the plaza could be described as part of a broader push to remove Confederate monuments that gained traction after the May 2020 murder of George Floyd, a unarmed Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer, and the Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the nation that followed.
However, Roanoke has a deeply troubled history when it comes to historical treatment of Black citizens, including urban renewal initiatives that bulldozed Black neighborhoods, business districts and landmarks in name of economic development, resulting in the obscuring and erasing of significant swaths of regional Black history. Erecting the statue of Lacks and creating the online guided tour of sites significant to the Black community acknowledge these wrongs and take steps toward countering them.
“Roanoke is not unique,” said Roanoke Councilwoman Trish White-Boyd. “You name a city and you’re going to hear similar stories.”
‘Took off like wildfire’
At a ceremony held Dec. 19, 2022, in Henrietta Lacks Plaza, during which Bryce Cobbs’ drawings of Lacks were revealed, White-Boyd, who was then the city’s vice mayor, thanked her fellow council members for the vote that changed the plaza’s name.
White-Boyd led the drive for the entire project, both the “Hidden Histories” documentary and the Lacks statue. She’d been hearing about Henrietta Lacks’ story for years. “A lot of us have always had a lot of respect for her and her story, that history,” she said. “When I got on council, that was the one of the things that I was determined to do.”
It began with a handful of people talking over coffee about raising money for the statue, with “no idea that it would happen in less than a year. It took off like wildfire, because people really wanted to see that happen,” she said.
White-Boyd had Cobbs in mind early on as the artist who could create references for a sculptor to work from, but who that sculptor would be wasn’t settled so quickly. Of the artists the committee approached, Bechtel consistently showed the most interest, providing information on costs that allowed the group to determine fundraising goals. His professionalism and enthusiasm landed him the job.
“That she was born in Roanoke intrigued me,” he said, adding, “I wondered initially if perhaps some fragments of the foundation of her house might be incorporated into the sculpture of her.”
Winding path to sculpture
Bechtel, 74, followed a long and winding road to becoming a sculptor. He grew up in Wheaton, Illinois, and earned a degree in English at Wheaton College before moving to Chicago and going to work building boats in a shipyard.
A hiking trip along the coast of Vancouver with his college roommate led to another job building boats in Oregon, a stint acting with a small theater troupe, a first marriage and a son, and a camping journey in a pickup truck in search of new work that veered from California all the way to Maine before arriving at a construction job in Virginia.
Living in Christiansburg, Bechtel met and became friends with NASCAR driver Ronnie Thomas, the 1978 Winston Cup Rookie of the Year. Though Bechtel knew nothing of NASCAR at first, hanging out with Thomas inspired him to start a column for the News Messenger in Montgomery County, “Inside Racing.”
At this point, he’d also begun teaching at Virginia Tech. As Bechtel described it, he was struggling to make ends meet as a carpenter. When he first moved to Christiansburg, he knew nothing about the university, and once he discovered the campus, “I didn’t even know if they had an English department.” Urged on by his first wife, “I applied and was accepted.”
Other word ventures included two published novels and numerous book reviews for The Roanoke Times. Though he had as a boy enjoyed whittling, carving faces in wood, sculpture entered his adult life almost by chance.
“I’m in graduate school, I am teaching now,” he said. It so happened one day as he passed a church on Prices Fork Road, “I saw that they had cut down an oak tree and it was a big stump, a great big piece, and I just went in there and asked if I would be OK if I carved it. They were OK with that.” Using his grandfather’s ax and a massive boat builder’s chisel, “I got to a point where I was carving this face and it was like I dropped into this hole that took me straight back to those grade school years.”
Doing right by Lacks
Still more twists would follow, including — not necessarily in this order — a divorce, more ventures in wood carving, a new marriage, a stepdaughter and a daughter, launching and supervising a recycling program at Virginia Tech, experimenting with creating collectible figurines and fridge magnets, retirement, and a request from his brother in Charlottesville to create a garden sculpture that would lead to his first experience casting in bronze.
“This was a big change, you know, as far as introduction to this material,” Bechtel said. “I started more or less aiming toward more of these,” which would lead to such public artworks as the “Calling the Powers” sculpture in Roanoke’s Vic Thomas Park, the “Officer Down” sculpture and now, the monument to Henrietta Lacks.
The home near the Virginia Tech campus where he lives with his wife, artist Ann Shawhan, features a delightful garden bursting with both greenery and outdoor sculpture. One of the paths through that garden leads to Bechtel’s studio, where during a summer visit the miniature of the Lacks statue was just one of many works in progress.
However, no project so far has come with the expectations that the Henrietta Lacks statue bears. The artist made it a point to keep in communication with Lacks’ grandson, Ron Lacks.
“I want this to be a portrait that the family can be proud of,” Bechtel said.
Both Cobbs and White-Boyd recalled hearing about Lacks’ story and her Roanoke connection before the matter became widely known the world over. Cobbs heard the story from a beloved mentor, Roanoke educator Marion Ware, who encouraged his pursuit of art. White-Boyd heard about it in the early 1990s through a friend and former co-worker, Regine Coleman, one of Lacks’ cousins.
‘A long time coming’
Born in Roanoke in 1920, Lacks died young in Baltimore. The mother of five lost her life to cervical cancer at age 31. The strange turn that would inspire artists and writers to name her “the Mother of Modern Medicine” unfolded after her death, unbeknownst to her family.
A sample of Lacks’ cancer cells, collected without her knowledge by doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital, proved able to continuously grow and reproduce in laboratory environments, allowing scientists anywhere to conduct research using identical human cells.
For decades, the HeLa cell line has played an essential part in numerous biomedical breakthroughs, from the polio vaccine to COVID-19 vaccines. Though HeLa cell research enabled the biotechnology sector to earn billions, Lacks’ descendants received no compensation.
The story of Lacks’ life and contribution to science became much more widely known following the publication of a 2010 bestselling book, Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” later adapted into an HBO movie starring Oprah Winfrey. (Ron Lacks has since written his own book about his grandmother, “Henrietta Lacks: The Untold Story.”)
Although taking sample tissue without permission was standard practice in 1951, the accounting of where HeLa calls came from resonated with the cruel exploitation of Black patients that occurred throughout the history of American medicine.
At the 2022 ceremony during which Cobbs’ drawings of Lacks were revealed, Ron Lacks expressed his appreciation for the consideration his family received from White-Boyd and the project’s organizers.
“This historic moment, occasion has been a long time coming,” he said. White-Boyd and the committee “were the first ones to ever reach out to the Lacks family before starting this project. This means a lot to my family. This is very exciting and I will be looking forward to the unveiling of the finished sculpture that will honor her forever in this beautiful city.”