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A modest proposal / August 13, 2020
Halifax County supervisors, following in the footsteps of countless elected officials before them, took the traditional approach to resolving the controversy over the Confederate statue standing at the courthouse square — on Monday night, they punted the matter to someone else, namely the county’s voters. As if there weren’t enough going on already to get your blood pumping this fall, the Nov. 3 general election ballot will include a referendum asking citizens if they want to relocate the Confederate soldier statue in Halifax to a destination unknown.

The supes took the easy way out on a knotty problem, and certainly there’s nothing wrong with asking the citizenry at large for direction on the matter. But let’s be honest about what we can expect in the weeks, months and years ahead. First off, there is no possible future where a vote to keep our local tribute to the Confederacy in place at the courthouse will age well. In June, the state of Mississippi got rid of the Confederate battle flag design on its state flag. NASCAR has banned Confederate displays at its events. NASCAR! America’s premier racing circuit, born in the South and still widely associated with the region, just said no to the Lost Cause, which might lead people to think it’s finally and truly lost. But the Old South and its racist past still claim a prominent defender in the White House, and Donald Trump carried Halifax County in 2016 with 57 percent of the vote. So we’ll see.

And if the referendum to take the statue down succeeds? To people like me it’s a heartening victory and statement on where Halifax County can take the future — and I’ll just say it right now, it’ll also be one heckuva surprise — but for many others, neighbors, friends and otherwise, well, not so much. No matter how strongly you may feel the statue was wrongly placed at the courthouse, and believe people will ultimately accept the idea of relocating it to a more suitable setting such as a museum, this ballot initiative will leave hard feelings in its wake no matter how the vote turns out.

The year 2020 has been miserable enough already without fighting a fight that leaves a residue of ill will no one should celebrate, win or lose. But what if there were a way to rally people around a separate idea or set of ideas, one that bridges community divides and offers at least some satisfaction for everybody? What if, instead of taking down the Confederate statue and replacing it with nothing, we replaced it with something?

Before going any further, let me express the firm conviction that not only will this idea not cost Halifax County a red cent, it’s a sure-fire moneymaker for county government and those in the private sector with their own household budgets to worry about. Rather than stirring up controversy, it holds the potential to sidestep the one we’re about to fight. And as ideas go, this one has an unassailable virtue: it’s completely free.

Let’s take down the Confederate statue at the courthouse and replace it with one of Henrietta Lacks.

POW and OWWW — that sound you just heard was one of our local SCV members slamming his head through a wall. But hear me out on this one. The case for erecting a statue to Henrietta Lacks at the courthouse square requires some explication on multiple levels. Brace yourselves, folks, the Inception column I’ve always wanted to write is coming your way.

First: Let’s talk optics. Imagine you’re a member of the national news media (I promise this will be the most unpleasant line you’ll read in this space). You catch wind of a small Southern town that has decided to remove its local Confederate statue. That’s worth maybe writing a brief to tack onto the nightly news feed. But then suppose Mr. Bigfoot Media Man sees that said Southern town is not only taking down its granite Johnny Red, it’s putting up a statue in to a Black woman whose story was brought to the silver screen (okay: HBO Films) by none other than Oprah Winfrey. A little town two miles west of nowhere is choosing to tuck its Confederate past away in a museum amid a national racial reckoning AND it builds a monument to a Black woman whose life gave rise to magnificent medical advances AT THE SAME TIME America faces a worldwide pandemic. Tell me this wouldn’t be catnip for the ravenous media tiger. In a flash, Halifax County would make the ABC Evening News, The Wall Street Journal, People magazine and maybe even National Geographic. All positive publicity, the likes of which money can’t buy.

Let’s talk money — this idea does, after all, involve the courthouse. Right this moment in America, Fortune 500 companies are spending vast sums on advertising to align themselves with the Black Lives Matter movement. So suppose we go to these major corporations and other deep-pocketed organizations — philanthropies, public interest groups, grant funders and outfits like the Rockefeller Foundation — and say to them, “Hey, fellas, we’re building a monument to a Black woman whose life mattered in ways that astound the imagination, we’re going to memorialize a Black life that saved the lives of millions of people around the world, Black, White, Brown, every hue on the human spectrum. Would you like to be part of this endeavor of ours?” The answer, of course, would be, “Yes. Yes, we would very much like to be associated with something like that. What is your minimum required contribution?” I don’t know how much money Halifax County could raise with a pitch like this, over and above the cost of the statue itself, but it’s got to be enough to pay for a judge’s chamber or two.

And to those who say, “But what about Halifax County’s valiant boys of war, whose memory will be dishonored if we take the statue down?” Here I would suggest a modest compromise. Over in Mecklenburg County, a parallel debate is stirring over requests to take down the Confederate soldier statue at Boydton’s courthouse square. One idea for a replacement is erecting two statues, one each for Mecklenburg’s Medal of Honor recipients, soldiers White and Black. The proposal is complicated somewhat by the fact the African-American war hero earned his medal fighting in the Indian Wars, but the thought is certainly sound. As it happens, Halifax County has a notable war hero, too, who would be deserving of a monument at the courthouse: Col. Edward Carrington, hero of The Crossing of The Dan. This idea, too, is complicated by Halifax County’s slaveholding past (the Carringtons were among the region’s plantation elite), but though the Revolutionary era is more complicated than the history books generally teach, the ideals for which the war was fought remain worthy of honor. Let’s pay tribute to Halifax County’s role in the fight for freedom with a statue to an actual son of Halifax, rather than continue the defense of the cheap ersatz memorial now standing at the courthouse.

By this point, we should mostly have covered the crass commercial considerations and necessary compromises required to rally support for a cause that has been simmering in Halifax County for (checks notes) about a month. So let’s take this exploration a few levels deeper. (Eat your heart out, Christopher Nolan.) The story of Henrietta Lacks burst out of nowhere and became part of the public consciousness with the publication of Rebecca Skloot’s 2015 non-fiction best-seller, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” It’s a marvelous book that becomes more meaningful with each passing day: It’s a rumination on medical ethics and the implications of scientific progress, a richly told historical account of growing up poor and defenseless against the cruel world, and most of all it’s a heartfelt story of agonizing death and bitterness and the capacity of the human heart for reconciliation. This wonderful story unfolds in two places: Halifax County, Va., where Henrietta Lacks grew up and is buried (she was born in Roanoke but lived only a short time there), and Baltimore, Md., where her adult life was cut short by cervical cancer. You probably know the story: The cancerous cells that were harvested after her death miraculously reproduced, in defiance of all that science thought possible at the time, and this HeLa cell line — the origin of the name was lost to memory until Skloot wrote her book — provided the foundations for a cure for polio, development of the HPV vaccine, life-saving cancer treatments, and too many other advancements to list here. This all happened because a poor Black child grew up in Halifax County, a teenage sharecropper descended from slaves, before moving to Baltimore where she died of cancer at the age of 31. It was a sad but unheralded end to what by ordinary lights was an unremarkable life. Which, by the way, is something you can say about 99.9999 percent of people who walk this world.

Nearly 70 years after Henrietta Lacks’s death, Halifax remains a poor county for Black and White, with difficulty conveying a positive self-image and vision to the world. And yet we are one of only two places on Earth that can rightly project our name onto a story of world-historical significance. Why haven’t we done this? Superintendent of Schools Mark Lineburg tried with his proposal to rename the high school after Henrietta Lacks, but that didn’t go far, for legitimate reasons of a lack of a personal connection between Lacks and the high school — school communities being understandably protective of tradition. Another idea for tying Halifax County to the Henrietta Lacks story was the establishment of a life sciences research center at our local technology park. Interesting idea, but one without a budget behind it. By contrast, a statue to Henrietta Lacks at the courthouse square would probably cost nothing, could bring worldwide attention to Halifax County, all of its praiseworthy, and provide a welcome boost for tourism and community marketing. It also would be true to the county’s agricultural legacy and commitment to educational development. And then there’s the bigger story the statue would tell.

Which, simply put, is this: Black Lives Matter because all lives matter, and before anyone latches onto one part of that statement at the expense of the other, think about the philosophical implications here. Henrietta Lacks was a nobody, except that she wasn’t, in the same way all human beings are deserving of dignity and blessed with the potential to lift up humankind in ways we don’t always appreciate in the historical moment. When I read about the great men of history, with their famed victories and the statues built in their honor, I also try to save a thought for the men who died on their battlefields, the soldiers whose stories were cut short and never told, the wheat lying in the field. I also think of enslaved Black people who never had a chance in their lifetimes to escape exploitation and plunder, and whose descendants have been forced to navigate a world where ugly legacies still carry unwarranted power. Then you think of the advances and struggles of our history — the miracles, really — that point the way to a more hopeful future. Miracles like Henrietta Lacks. A child of Halifax County.

Or we can have a big fight over a relic at the courthouse that mostly went ignored, rightly or wrongly, until a few weeks ago. “Why can’t we all get along?” a person of color once famously asked. Why not indeed? The off-ramp from discord to unity lies ahead, Halifax County. Can we take it?

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