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Halifax County supes to work with groups on Henrietta Lacks statue

SoVaNow.com / June 10, 2021
Two speakers who came before the Halifax Count Board of Supervisors Monday night to call for the placement of a statue of Henrietta Lacks at the Halifax County Courthouse square received a generally positive response from board members, albeit one lacking concrete details.

Barbara Coleman-Brown, president of the Halifax/South Boston NAACP Chapter 7074, and Hope Harris-Gayles, president of One Community, said a statue to Lacks — whose self-replicating “He La” cell line has spawned countless medical advancements since her death in 1951 of cervical cancer — would have the effect of advancing Halifax County as well.

“Erecting a statue is not only right, but good policy that ties directly to the community’s strategic plan created by community-wide input,” said Harris-Gayles.

The two speakers extolled the significance of the life and death of Lacks, who lived most of her childhood in Clover and moved away as a young adult for work in a Baltimore steel mill. Since the publication of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the 2010 bestseller by science writer Rebecca Skloot, memorials to Lacks have popped up around the U.S. and world, but not in Halifax County, save for a highway marker and Lack’s gravesite in her family home of Clover.

The Route 360 highway marker was commissioned by VDOT, and Lacks’ headstone was donated by John Hopkins University, site of the hospital where Lacks died of cancer at age 31. There are displays honoring Henrietta Lacks in Chicago, Baltimore, her birthplace city of Roanoke, and soon London, England, where a bronze life-size statue will be erected at the University of Bristol.

“Yet Halifax County has not created any landmark to recognize Lacks and her ‘He La’ cells,” said Coleman-Brown.

A Henrietta Lacks statue “would symbolize a forward thrust based on how her cells have improved the lives of all people and continue improving the lives of humanity without regard to privilege, race, or any other type of discrimination,” Coleman-Brown noted.

In the county’s strategic plan adopted in 2019, a proposal to establish a Henrietta Lacks Life Sciences Center — a venture estimated to cost $50 million — is identified as a priority. That project, however, has been stymied by a lack of funding.

By contrast, a statue to Lacks would be achievable and beneficial to Halifax County’s image, the speakers argued.

“There is not a person in this room or a family member who has not been affected due to the research [with] her He La cells,” said Harris-Gayles. “We have unique opportunity to come together in unity, as one community, to support one of our own.

“This statue is not just for the black community,” she said.

The speakers further noted that a Henrietta Lacks statue would be good for community pride, education, economic development and tourism.

Board members who spoke in response praised the women’s presentation, and ED-8 supervisor William Bryant Claiborne successfully motioned to form a committee to work with the NAACP and One Community groups to determine the feasibility of a statue at the courthouse, and identify the details involved.

“I agree it’s a good idea, whether we create a new grounds committee or re-ignite the courthouse committee to work out the details,” said ED-2 supervisor Jeff Francisco.

On behalf of the Lacks family, Coleman-Brown requested advance notice of public meetings to give family members of Henrietta Lacks time to arrange visits to Halifax County to take part.

The Board of Supervisors will determine the makeup of the committee and work with the two groups to determine a process for erecting a statue in honor of Henrietta Lacks.

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This is just crazy.


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