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Born in Roanoke, the impact of Henrietta Lacks lives on

The City of Roanoke unveiled a statue of Henrietta Lacks Wednesday. Lacks is a pivotal figure in modern medicine, though her contributions went largely unrecognized for decades.

Ron Lacks helped uncover the new statue of his grandmother. "This is a journey we embarked on with joy in our hearts, knowing that we are making a difference and honoring our beloved grandmother," Lacks said to a gathering of several hundred people.

Henrietta Lacks was born in Roanoke in 1920. She was living in Baltimore more than three decades later when she developed cancer. Without her consent or knowledge, researchers harvested some of the Black woman’s cells before she died. Unlike other samples, they regenerate every 24 hours and have been used for the research, development and testing of all sorts of medical discoveries and treatments.

Civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who’s been helping the family get compensation from companies that profited from the cells, called Henrietta the Mother of Modern Medicine. "She should be in every history book in every city in every state, not just in America but around the world, for her incredible contributions."

Crump said Henrietta Lacks should be considered one of the most significant people to have ever lived because of her scientific contributions. "Now more than ever when you have revisionist history we need to set the record straight of just how majestic this Black woman was, who was born right here in Roanoke Virginia. And we can never let the world forget that Henrietta Lacks matters."

It’s work Roanoke’s Hidden Histories Committee has been doing. "It is important that we continue to teach that history, the real history that is hidden in plain sight," committee member Anita Price said. "It is incumbent upon all of us."

The new statue is located in Henrietta Lacks Plaza, a public space that once contained a monument to Confederate general Robert E. Lee until it was removed in 2020. Sculptor Lawrence Bechtel noted the significance of the change. "On the very spot where stood a symbol of oppression, of slavery, now stands the sculpture of a Black woman," Bechtel noted. There are other connections to Roanoke's Black history nearby. Across the street is city hall, named in honor of Roanoke's first Black mayor Noel Taylor, and the city's courthouse, which bears the name of Civil Rights lawyer Oliver Hill.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

David Seidel is Radio IQ's News Director.
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  • After years of planning, designing, and finally casting – the Henrietta Lacks monument in Downtown Roanoke is set for unveiling and dedication Wednesday morning. Lacks’ immense contribution to cancer research has only in recent years garnered worldwide attention. She was born in Roanoke, but later in life developed cancer. In the 1950's cells from her tumor were taken without her knowledge or consent and used for research that is still making medical breakthroughs today.Bryce Cobbs, Roanoke native and the artist behind the conceptual drawing for the statue, talks about what went into making the memorial a reality - and his hopes for the unveiling event.
  • NPR's Ailsa Chang speaks with science journalist and author Rebecca Skloot about Henrietta Lacks, whose family just settled with a biotech company that used her cancer cells without consent.
  • A committee that is working to bring Roanoke’s hidden past to life raised more than $183,000 for this memorial and for a companion project in which visitors to six different places will be able to call up a multimedia presentation about that site on a digital device.