Lacks was a Roanoke native who passed away in 1951 at 31. Her cells, known as HeLa cells, lived on and aided in the development of numerous ground-breaking medical treatments.
According to ABC News, a life-sized bronze statue honoring Lacks will be built in Henrietta Lacks Plaza in downtown Roanoke next year. During the project announcement on Monday, artist Bryce Cobbs unveiled a draft illustration of the monument. Members of the Lacks family attended the ceremony, including a grandson, Ron Lacks.
“This is an honor and a privilege to be here in Roanoke with my father, Lawrence Lacks, Henrietta’s oldest and only living child,” he said. “This historical moment, occasion, has been a long time coming.”
Cobbs added that he is “humbled to be a part of history in this way” and trusted to capture the essence of Lacks as best as possible.
Sculptor Larry Bechtel will design the Lacks statue. The statue will be placed in the previously named Lee Plaza. Following the police killing of George Floyd in 2020, the Lee statue was demolished amid protests.
The project was commissioned as a part of the Roanoke Hidden Histories, an initiative of the Harrison Museum of African American Culture. It’s an effort of Roanoke Vice-Mayor Trish White-Boyd meant to “surface the hidden histories of the African American experience in Roanoke.”
According to Lacks’ family, a gynecologist took a sample of her cells and sent it to a lab for research without her knowledge in 1951 while she was receiving treatment for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Although Lacks died only a few months later in 1951, her “HeLa” cells were discovered to be “immortal,” lasting longer than any other samples scientists had seen and even multiplying every 24 hours, according to Johns Hopkins.
HeLa cells are thought to have saved millions of lives through medical advances such as the polio vaccine, coronavirus vaccines, cancer treatments, AIDS treatments and Parkinson’s treatments, according to scientists.
Attorney Ben Crump was with the family at Monday’s ceremony. He is representing them in a lawsuit against biotech company Thermo Fisher Scientific. The company allegedly made a lot of money by using Lacks’ cells without permission from the family.
“I just think it’s so fitting in the state of Virginia … where in the past we commemorated a lot of men with statues that divided us. Now here in Roanoke, Virginia, we will have a statue of a Black woman who brings us all together,” said Crump.