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Fundraiser seeks $140,000 for Henrietta Lacks statue near Roanoke's city hall

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Now that an area in downtown Roanoke is named Henrietta Lacks Plaza, advocates want to privately raise $140,000 to erect a statue of her.

Lacks, a Black woman from Roanoke, went to The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, for cancer treatment in 1951. Doctors couldn’t save her, but they discovered that her cells were capable of growing outside her body in a laboratory vessel.

The cells, which are still alive, morphed into a “remarkably durable and prolific line” and supported the discovery of research breakthroughs around the world, the medical center said.

Problem was, doctors didn’t obtain Lacks’ permission to use her cells in medical research; the university says the research project some 70 years ago occurred before the inception of informed consent. Her family members say they weren’t informed until the 1970s. Put in the spotlight, key beneficiaries including Johns Hopkins have sought to make amends.

In Roanoke, only the Science Museum of Western Virginia honors Lacks with a public display, with her name engraved on a staircase listing contributors to science. Lacks is honored with signs, markers, statues and exhibits in various places of the United States and world. Assuming fundraising is successful, the Roanoke statue would be life-size and go in the west half of the former Lee Plaza beside the Noel C. Taylor Municipal Building.

The city council renamed the west side for Lacks in July.

But is a statue enough?

Vice Mayor Trish White-Boyd, who initiated the plaza renaming and statue project, doesn’t think so.

The vice mayor has gotten in touch with a group of cultural educators in Richmond who produced a multimedia presentation about some of that community’s unknown or forgotten Black history. It’s called Hidden in Plain Site Richmond and is available free online.

If Roanoke can raise an additional $40,000, the plan is to contract with the Hidden In Plain Site team to create a similar presentation about Roanoke’s hidden history, White-Boyd said.

Hidden In Plain Site Richmond can be viewed on a computer, phone or virtual reality headset. The viewer, clicking at their own pace, goes virtually to 10 locations keyed to events that shaped the experiences of Black people living in Richmond during the 1800s and 1900s. The locations, generally without statues or monuments today, existed in “plain” sight with only limited public knowledge of what took place, according to the producers.

For instance, one part of the Richmond presentation focuses on Robert Lumpkin and his Lumpkin’s Jail. The producers depicted the notorious holding facility for enslaved people within modern-day images of the grass lot beside heavily traveled Interstate 95 and about 500 yards from the Virginia State Capitol where it all happened. Narration, recreations and readings flesh out the story.

People who have seen Hidden In Plain Site Richmond have told the producers they will never feel the same way about parts of the city covered in the presentation, said Dean Browell, a market researcher and member of the Hidden In Plain Site team. Dontrese Brown, an educator, and David Waltenbaugh, a virtual reality developer, are also on the team.

Hidden in Plain Site also produced a presentation on indigenous people in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and has other projects lined up. Each one is an attempt to unearth important history and tell it accurately with extensive detail.

Browell said said there an historical sign in Louisa County recognizing Henry “Box” Brown, a person who was enslaved on a Louisa-area plantation but escaped slavery by shipping himself in a box to Philadelphia. Hidden In Plain Site Richmond tied its telling of Brown’s story to the address of the shipping company in downtown Richmond that unwittingly handled his box, according to the presentation, he said.

Lacks could be a character in the Roanoke presentation, assuming it is funded, because her story is hidden in that many people do not know it, Browell and White-Boyd agreed. Her home is believed to have stood in Southwest Roanoke’s Perry Park. It’s without a marker.

Checks should be made out to the Harrison Museum, the fundraiser’s fiscal agent, with the phrase “Henrietta Lacks” on the memo line. Contributions should be mailed to: The Harrison Museum, P.O. Box 21054, Roanoke, Va. 24018.

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Jeff Sturgeon covers the city of Roanoke, including schools, banking and transportation. Phone: (540) 981-3251. Email: jeff.sturgeon@roanoke.com. Mail: 201 W. Campbell Ave., Roanoke, VA 24011.

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