Lawrence Lacks has childhood memories of his mother Henrietta as a beautiful, vibrant, outgoing woman who was a connector, the one who held things and people together. Though strict, she was the glue for her immediate family, as well as the extended network of family and friends who would follow her and her husband, David, from their family home in Halifax County, Virginia to Maryland.
Henrietta and David made the pilgrimage to Maryland when their oldest son, Lawrence, and daughter, Elsie, now deceased, were young children. Lawrence remembers the bustle of their home in Turner Station, one of the oldest African American communities in what is now Dundalk, where the family moved not long after arriving.
Ron L. Lacks and Lawrence Lacks with a family portrait of Henrietta Lacks. (Courtesy photo)
“We was the first ones from Virginia here. The rest of them, everybody came to her house to get a start,” said Lawrence Lacks, the oldest of Henrietta’s five children. “Everybody would come there, stay a month or two and leave. She helped a lot of people from Virginia and North Carolina,” Lawrence said.
Lawrence grew up seeing his mother serve as a bridge to a better life for loved ones and friends migrating up what is now the I-85/I-95 corridor. Like many African-American families that journeyed from the South, the Lacks home became the way-station for others seeking to travel North in the era of legal segregation. Lawrence couldn’t imagine until years later that Henrietta would literally be that bridge to a better life for people all over the world.
David Lacks found employment at Bethlehem Steel and shortly thereafter, was recruited to fight in World War II. Henrietta raised Lawrence, Elsie and had three other children, David, Deborah, and Joseph in those years in and near Baltimore.
It was not long after the birth of the Lacks’ youngest child, Joseph (Zakariyya Bari Abdul Rahman) that Lawrence, who by then was an adolescent, noticed the daily routine in the Lacks home was changing.
“Nobody told me but I could see the difference and feel the difference. I noticed that she had start slowing down and couldn’t take care of everything and I had to start taking care of the responsibilities,” Lawrence said. “Her chores became mine; I had to get in there and start providing for my brothers and sisters.” Henrietta’s illness was diagnosed as cervical cancer in 1951, just months after the birth of her youngest son.
Henrietta’s primary care doctor in Turner Station referred her to Hopkins for treatment where she received radium tube inserts, and continued with scheduled X-ray treatments and follow-up visits. During one of her follow-up treatments, two samples were removed from Lacks’ cervix without her permission or knowledge.
The samples were given to Johns Hopkins cancer researcher and physician, George Otto Gey. The cancerous sample is what is now commonly known as the HeLa immortal cell line, the oldest and most commonly used cell line in scientific research throughout the world.
Lawrence remembers his mother calling him and his siblings to her bedside at Hopkins when she was admitted for the final time in August, 1951. Henrietta died on October 4, 1951.
“I remember she told me to take care of my brothers and sisters,” Lawrence said, an admonition he still takes to heart today.
Lawrence Lacks became the family patriarch, took a job as a railroad engineer and started several small businesses to provide for the needs of his extended family and things eventually returned to normal. At one point, his brothers and sisters all lived together with Lacks, his wife Bobette and their children in Baltimore.
“I try to go where I’m needed and try to help everybody in the family to keep the whole family together,” Lawrence said.
Then, in 1975, Bobette Lacks, who worked as a nurse’s assistant, went to lunch with a neighbor, who introduced a doctor friend. When the physician heard the name Lacks, he immediately recalled the HeLa Cells project at Hopkins – the cells that carried Henrietta Lacks identity and were the first cells to remain alive outside the human body. Bobette put things together and started working with the neighbor to try and get information from Hopkins about the HeLa cells.
Unfortunately, they faced roadblock after roadblock, said Ron L. Lawrence, Lacks’ son. “Hopkins told my Mom that they didn’t give that kind of information to Negroes,” Ron said. Lacks said his parents tried to seek information from Hopkins for years with no success.
Then came Rebecca Skloot, author of the award-winning book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which was published in 2010. According to Lawrence and his son, Skloot was curiously able to gain access to the information denied the Lacks family for years.
Part two of Lawrence Lacks – my side of the story will appear in next week’s Afro. The life of Henrietta Lacks has been turned into a HBO movie, starring Oprah Winfrey and scheduled to be released on April 22.