A statue of a black woman named Henrietta Lacks will soon be erected where a tribute to Confederate General Robert E. Lee once stood in a grassy, shaded little grove in Roanoke, Virginia, just one of many efforts to replace symbols and reminders of the Old South with monuments to Black history across the country.
The Lee monument, which had stood in the plaza since 1960, was damaged after being toppled during the Black Lives Matter riots in 2020 and remained in storage until local officials voted not to restore it to its original site. The monument will now be replaced by a life-sized bronze depiction of Lacks standing in a blazer and skirt in the newly-renamed Henrietta Lacks Plaza, named after a woman who died not having any idea that she'd one day be famous.
Lacks, who suffered from cervical cancer, was a bit of a medical anomaly. Shortly before her death in 1951 at the age of 31, doctors took a cell sample from her cancerous tumor without her permission or knowledge. After observing the cells, doctors realized they replicated at much faster rates than normal, and sent them to researchers at Johns Hopkins to study. That fast-reproducing cell line, which is still replicating to this day, was then used for tens of thousands of studies over decades and has contributed to developing treatments for everything from leukemia and Parkinson’s to the flu and even in vitro fertilization.
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Lacks’ family didn’t learn of her unwitting contribution to science and medicine until 1973, when researchers contacted them asking to study their genes.
Now, Lacks’ relatives say they’re happy she’s finally being honored with a statue erected where Lee’s once stood. The monument was funded by Roanoke Hidden Histories, a group that “acknowledges African American history in the community's public spaces” according to its website, and which raised more than $183,000 to put up the statue.
According to the far-left Southern Poverty Law Center, more than 90 statues and another 167 Confederate symbols have been removed since George Floyd’s death and the riots that followed.