It was October 4, 2023 and a sunny day in Roanoke, Va. I attended the unveiling of the Henrietta Lacks Statue. Although the city quietly boasts the birthplace of the mother of medicine, the community boldly came out to show its' commemoration. As a historian, who understands the value in documenting the existence of the human experience, I was more than honored to be at, in my opinion, the most memorable unveiling in the history of medicine.
Henrietta Lacks was born on August 1, 1920, in Roanoke, Va., and died at the young age of 31 years old, from cervical cancer. After going to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Md, for treatment, a sample of her cancer cells were sent to Dr. George Gey, a cancer and virus researcher. He noticed that Henrietta's cells would not die but continue to multiply. Today, the cells are known as 'HeLa' cells, saving millions of lives.
The erecting of her statue will serve has a continued mode of communication, recognition of an overlooked culture and community as well as a symbol of civic values. Having replaced the previous statue of Robert E. Lee, sitting now in the newly named plaza, The Henrietta Lacks Plaza, and initiated the Henrietta Lacks Day on October 4th throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia, it is more than historical, it is archival.
(Left to Right) Picture 1. Sculptor Lawrence Bechtel, Denetra Hampton, Artist, Bryce Cobbs, Picture 2. Denetra with Lacks Family Attorney, Ben Crump, Picture 3. Denetra with Council Member, Trish White-Boyd.
The gravity of the day can't be truly articulated. Additionally, it was necessary for me to make it to this ceremony as I understood the importance of my lived experience; irreplaceable.
The value of Henrietta's medical story, her contribution to science and her immeasurable gift to humanity gives me pause. In an age where politics is in opposition to science, her story creates a continued conversation on the importance of history and its' relevancy in bridging gaps of inequities.
As a historian I understand the importance of research, the authentic analysis of that research and how it can create policy change for the better of mankind. This experience gave me more inspiration to continue my journey, to unearth important stories and to lift historical pages from dusted books buried beneath.
I am grateful. Thank you Henrietta Lacks, your legacy continues.