Henrietta Lacks was honoured today from the floors of the Virginia House of Delegates and Senate. At the same time, Members of the Henrietta Lacks Family, and Henrietta Lacks Legacy Group were recognized by Senator William Stanley (Virginia Senatorial District 20), and Delegate James Edmunds (Virginia House District 60), as part of efforts to bring to fruition the Henrietta Lacks Commission and Henrietta Lacks Life Science Center (LSC) Project. The following comments were made by Delegate Edmunds from the House floor today:
Henrietta Lacks is a Virginia native, a Virginia hero, an African-American woman whose unique world-changing legacy has touched all of us, without most of us realizing it.
Henrietta Lacks was born Loretta Pleasant on August 1, 1920, but quickly and affectionately came to be called Hennie by her family. After her mother’s death, she was raised by extended family members in the Clover community of Halifax County, Virginia. There, she lived in a former slave cabin known to the Lacks family as the Home-House, most of which still stands today, just yards away from Henrietta’s final resting place. She was Baptized in St. Matthews Church in the Town of Clover, and educated in the same town. As a child, Henrietta worked the exhausting life of a tobacco farmer’s daughter alongside her cousins. She married and began her family in Clover, Virginia.
In 1941, Henrietta moved with her husband, David “Dye” Lacks, and their first two children, Lawrence and Elsie, to Turner Station, near Baltimore, Maryland. They moved because of the unfairness of a culture and social system that gave little or no economic opportunity to African-Americans, and even less opportunity to African-American woman. Her husband found work in the steel mills, and Henrietta continued raising her growing family, which soon included another daughter Deborah, and two more sons David, known as “Sonny,” and Joseph, now known as Zakariyya. Her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren form Henrietta’s family legacy, which lives on, and carries forward Henrietta’s broader, unique and world-changing legacy. We are honored today to have six descendants and extended family members of Henrietta Lacks in our chamber today. They are: Jeri Lacks Whye, David Lacks Jr., Devin Lacks, Thomas Whye, Alfred Carter Jr., and Veronica Robinson. I ask that they stand to be recognized and honored by this body.
These proud descendants are but a part of Henrietta’s story and legacy. I mentioned at the beginning of this recognition that her legacy is unique and world-changing, that it touches all of us, and makes her a hero to all of us; an unsung hero for too long. Like many stories of triumph and healing, Henrietta’s heroism started with tragedy and suffering.
In 1951, Henrietta was diagnosed with cervical cancer, and treated at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. There, just before her untimely death at the young age of 31, and unbeknownst to her, some of her cells were removed from her body for use in research. Also unbeknownst to the rest of the world at the time, was that we had all received a miraculous gift in the form of human cells that did not die. Henrietta Lack’s cells, shortened in name to HeLa cells, and so disconnecting her full name from their power and promise for over half a century, became the first immortal cell line. This immortality allowed Henrietta’s cells to be replicated and distributed to researchers around the world who could then test their theories, and validate their results on an identical base line of living cells, suddenly advancing biotech research by leaps and bounds.
Over the decades, the HeLa cell would be named in over 11,000 patents, including just three years after Henrietta’s death, when her cells were used to develop the Polio vaccine from which we have all benefitted – us, our parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren, and all of God’s children around the world. HeLa cells have been used to research and develop new therapies to fight Cancer and AIDS, and in the effort to map the human genome, which holds the key to “personalized medicine” which could treat or even cure all of us of almost every ailment and disease over time.
And now, because Henrietta Lacks’s loving and giving spirit flows through her family legacy, we in the Commonwealth of Virginia are being given the opportunity to honor her world legacy in ways long overdue, and in the place that she would have appreciated most, her homeplace - Southern Virginia, Halifax County, Virginia. Southern Virginia still has a statistically significant higher rate of certain cancers than any other place in the country. These need to be researched where they are most prominent and most deadly. Many Southern Virginians who suffer from cancer have to travel long distances to get certain treatments, adding insult to injury. They need to be treated where they live.
Henrietta Lacks’s family, in her honor, have chosen the Commonwealth of Virginia, as the only place in the world to partner with and create a new life science research and cancer treatment center in the name of Henrietta Lacks – a heroic effort for a true hero. Today the family is joined by representatives of the Henrietta Lacks Legacy Group, based in Turner Station, and sanctioned by the family to advance Henrietta’s legacy, having done so indefatigably now for over 20 years. Members of the Legacy Group include: Servant Courtney Speed, Elmira Thornton, Muriel Christian Gray, Alejandra Ivanovich, and Adele Newson-Horst. Please, stand and be recognized.
Also present are local leaders representing Halifax County, Virginia. These include: Dr. Betty Adams, Executive Director of the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center, and The Honorable Kristy Johnson, Mayor of the Town of Halifax and Deputy Director of the Halifax Industrial Development Authority, and Matt Leonard, Executive Director of the Halifax Industrial Development Authority who developed the plan for the Henrietta Lacks Life Science Research and Cancer Treatment Center and have been promoting it for the last four years. Will the Halifax contingent, please stand and be recognized
And now we, the members of Virginia’s General Assembly have been asked to join this heroic effort. This governing body, during this session, has considered and deliberated the formation of the Henrietta Lacks Commission, the purpose of which will be to create, build and see to sustainable operation the Henrietta Lacks Life Science and Cancer Treatment Center just a few short miles from where Henrietta lies in eternal rest, in Halifax County, Virginia. Her heroic legacy, unrecognized by too many for too long, is not lost on this House of Delegates. We have voted to form and support this new Commission, and along with our colleagues in the Senate, we have done so unanimously. At a time when too much divides us, it is a wonder beyond all worldly making that what unites us is the healing legacy of one of our own, gone from this world in body, but not in spirit. Henrietta Lacks is a true Virginia hero; a true woman hero; a true African-American hero, who we celebrate especially, sincerely and deeply today on this last day of Black History month.
Ladies and gentlemen of the Virginia House of Delegates, I ask that you rise and show our appreciation to Henrietta Lacks for her unique and powerful legacy and her heroism which extends far beyond these chambers and the Commonwealth of Virginia for the continued benefit of all people, in all of the world.
History of the Henrietta Lacks Life Science Center and Commission
The Henrietta Lacks LSC and Commission is a joint effort begun by the Halifax County, Virginia, Industrial Development Authority (IDA), in partnership with the Virginia Legislature; Office of the Governor of Virginia; Henrietta Lacks family; Henrietta Lacks Legacy Group; and The Southern Virginia Higher Education Center.
Henrietta Lacks is an important historical figure in the world of cancer treatment and biomedical research. She was raised, married and started her family in Halifax County, Virginia, and is buried in a cemetery in the Lacks Town area of the county in Clover, Virginia. The story of how her unique cell line became one of the most important biomedical research advancements of the 20th century gained world-wide attention through the New York Times Best Selling Book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, released in 2010. An HBO movie of the same name, was produced by and starred Oprah Winfrey.
"The IDA created and started promoting the concept for the Henrietta Lacks LSC project more than four years ago,” explains Matt Leonard, IDA Executive Director. “We’ve been working on it ever since. In all that time, our passion for making the Henrietta Lacks LSC a reality never wavered or waned because it is too right and too good an initiative. Meaningful projects like this one require strong collaborations and take time to develop. This project will be transformational for Halifax County, the entire Southern Virginia Region, and beyond. It is significant historically, economically, and socially.”
Efforts to bring the Henrietta Lacks Commission and LSC accelerated over the last six months, through various strategic partnerships and meetings. On Monday, December 11th, a group of local Halifax County stakeholders gathered in Halifax to meet with Lacks family members and Henrietta Lacks Legacy Group representatives to discuss the Henrietta Lacks Life Science Center project. This group included: Henrietta Lacks’ grandchildren, Jeri Lacks-Whye and David Lacks, Jr., both the children of Henrietta’s son, David, one of her five children; Dr. Adele Newson-Horst, Courtney “Servant” Speed, and Elmira Thornton, all members of the Henrietta Lacks Legacy Group Executive Committee; Delegate James Edmunds; Ed Owens, Mayor of the Town of South Boston; Kristy Johnson Mayor of the Town of Halifax, and Deputy Director of Halifax IDA; Mattie Cowan, Secretary/Treasurer of the Halifax IDA and Chair of the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center (SVHEC) Board of Directors; Jeremy Satterfield, Member of the Halifax IDA Board of Directors, and Microsoft’s Community Engagement Manager in the region; Dr. Nettie Simon-Owens, SVHEC’s Chief Economic Advancement Officer; and Matt Leonard, Halifax County IDA Executive Director.
“When Matt, Nettie and Ed came to Turner Station, Maryland and brought this project to us, we knew immediately it aligned with our efforts,” says Jeri Lacks-Whye, granddaughter of Henrietta Lacks. “We have made it our mission to extend our grandmother’s legacy in responsible and powerful ways. The message about her and the unparalleled reach of her cell line can be forwarded greatly through the Henrietta Lacks Life Science Center.”
“It will be built in her home county, and is aimed at making a better world for everyone,” adds David Lacks, Jr., grandson of Henrietta Lacks. “The course of our grandmother’s life can help end suffering and provide hope in the fight against cancer and all disease. That’s her true legacy. We’re so very proud to be part of this Henrietta Lacks Life Science Center project.”
Following the December 11th morning meeting in Halifax, most of the group paid their respects at Henrietta Lacks’ graveside in the Lacks Town Cemetery in Clover, Virginia, then travelled to Richmond to discuss the project with then Governor McAuliffe.
“Henrietta Lacks is a true Virginia hero,” said Governor McAuliffe at the time. “When I started my term as Governor, I challenged Virginia’s economic development professionals to develop transformational projects that make the most of their assets. Henrietta Lacks’ legacy is unique, powerful, and world-changing. That same positive change can occur in her homeplace – Halifax County, Virginia.”
On January 3rd, members of the project team met with then Governor-Elect Northam in his transition offices in Richmond, Virginia to discuss next steps, including the filing of the legislation and budget amendments needed to fund the Commission, estimated at $10,000/year for three years.
Since the beginning of the 2018 Virginia General Assembly Session, both Senator Stanley and Delegate Edmunds have closely shepherded their respective companion bills through the various House and Senate committees and subcommittees. Both were able to obtain unanimous votes of support to form the Henrietta Lacks Commission, with the House voting its support at 100-0, and the Senate at 40-0. The establishment of the Commission is the next vital step in the development of the Henrietta Lacks Life Science Center in Halifax County, Virginia.
The Henrietta Lacks LSC is currently conceived to be a $50M, 200,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art medical research and treatment facility, to be built in the Halifax County Industrial Development Authority’s Southern Virginia Technology Park (SVTP), a short drive from Henrietta Lacks’ Clover, Virginia home and final resting place. The Henrietta Lacks Life Science Center will be managed through a foundation, directed by representatives of the stakeholders who will build, operate, advance and sustain its multipurpose mission. These stakeholders will include the Lacks Family, the Commonwealth of Virginia, Halifax County IDA, resident research institutions, healthcare providers, the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center, and others as determined by the Henrietta Lacks Commission
The Henrietta Lacks Life Science Center’s mission will be to accelerate biomedical research through advanced methods, and highest-speed bio-data collection and analysis facilitated by the Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities Corporation (MBC) 1.2TBPS network, originally funded by the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission. Henrietta Lacks LSC will also provide personalized medical treatments to the overly affected yet underserved citizens of rural Southern Virginia; research, develop and commercialize new therapies; help transform the Southern Virginia economy; all the while appropriately honoring Henrietta Lacks’ unique legacy where it is most appropriate and most needed.
Halifax IDA will launch an informational website about this project and the Commission to track its progress, provide updates and announce milestones. For more information about the Henrietta Lacks Commission or the Henrietta Lacks Life Science Center Project, please contact: Matt Leonard, Executive Director, Halifax IDA at (434) 572-1734 Ext. 101; or MLeonard@HalifaxVirginia.com.