Henrietta Lacks' hometown will build statue of her to replace Robert E. Lee monument

Artist Bryce Cobbs stands next to the drawing he created of Henrietta Lacks, which was unveiled in Roanoke, Va., on Monday. The drawing will be used in the design process of a larger-than-life bronze statue. (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP)

Matt Gentry / Matt Gentry

A statue of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman whose cells were taken without her consent and subsequently used in several major medical breakthroughs, will be built in her hometown in Roanoke, Virginia.

The statue will replace a monument of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. City officials voted to remove the monument after its vandalization during the height of Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. Trish White-Boyd, Roanoke’s vice-mayor, and the Harrison Museum of African American Culture started fundraising for a public history project to replace the monument.

The Roanoke Hidden Histories initiative raised $183,877, which will be used to cover the cost of the statue and a virtual reality documentary about the town’s history.

“This beautiful woman was born Aug. 1, 1920, right here in Roanoke, Virginia,” White-Boyd said at a press conference on Monday, where Lacks’ family members were also present. “And we want to honor her, and to celebrate her.”

After Lacks died from cervical cancer at John Hopkins Hospital in 1951, a gynecologist named Dr. Howard Jones collected her cancerous cells without her consent. Jones, who also collected cells from his other cancer patients, noticed a remarkable difference: While other cells would die, Lacks’ continued to double every 20 to 24 hours.

Lacks’ cells — often referred to as HeLa cells — continue to play an integral role in medical research — and in saving countless lives — from cancer to polio, and most recently in the development of COVID-19 vaccines. But Lacks’ contribution had gone unrecognized for decades.

“Having reviewed our interactions with Henrietta Lacks and with the Lacks family over more than 50 years, we found that Johns Hopkins could have – and should have – done more to inform and work with members of Henrietta Lacks’ family out of respect for them, their privacy and their personal interests,” John Hopkins Medicine wrote on its website.

The Lacks family most recently filed a lawsuit against Thermo Fisher Scientific, a multibillion-dollar biotech company, over its nonconsensual use of Lacks’ cells.

“Today, in Roanoke, Virginia, at Lacks Plaza, we acknowledge that she was not only significant, she was literate and she was as relevant as any historic figure in the world today,” attorney Ben Crump, representing the Lacks family, said at the press conference.

Artist Bryce Cobbs, another Roanoke native who is involved in the project, debuted a preliminary sketch of the statue at Monday’s press conference. The statue is scheduled to be completed in October 2023, in the renamed Henrietta Lacks Plaza, previously known as Lee Plaza.

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