Laurence Hammack, Roanoke Times, October 4, 2023
On the plaza next to Roanoke’s city hall and courthouse, where a granite spire once commemorated Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, the statue of a Black woman now stands.
A bronze likeness of Henrietta Lacks, who was born in Roanoke and died in a Baltimore hospital 31 years later in a way that some say made her the mother of modern medicine, was unveiled at a ceremony Wednesday.
In 1951, Lacks went to the hospital at Johns Hopkins University for treatment of cervical cancer. Tissue taken from her tumor — without her knowledge or consent — became the first human cells to regenerate every 24 hours. The so-called “HeLa cells” became a cornerstone of modern medicine, enabling groundbreaking research and innovations.
Although the collection and use of human cells in research was acceptable at the time, such a practice would not happen today without the patient’s consent.
Poor and Black, Lacks family sought compensation for the use of her genetic material. “But they kept getting the door slammed in their face at every turn,” Ben Crump, a prominent civil rights attorney who took the case, told the crowd.
In the 1960s, an obelisk honoring Robert E. Lee was erected at the same site. It was toppled in the summer of 2020, during protests of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
A 72-year-old man admitted yanking down the monument with a chain hooked to a rented truck. He said he did it because he did not want to see Roanoke involved in chaotic clashes that unfolded elsewhere in the nation.
On Wednesday, the woman who now stands in Lee’s place was described by Crump as “probably one of the most significant human beings that has ever lived.”
Roanoke (VA) recently unveiled a statue of Henrietta Lacks! Henrietta’s family, local leaders, artists, and organizers attended the ceremony to celebrate Henrietta's incredible contribution to cancer research and treatment! What a lasting way to honor Henrietta’s life! pic.twitter.com/klfKHJAqg6
— Ben Crump (@AttorneyCrump) October 6, 2023