Henrietta Lacks: A Black history legacy of giving as told by Jeri Lacks

February 25, 2021

By: Jeri Lacks-Whye,
granddaughter of Henrietta Lacks

You’ve seen this iconic photo of beautiful Henrietta with her hands on her hips, a broad smile and eyes that seem to say “LOVE.” Henrietta Lacks is a name now known and revered, for hers is a life that keeps on giving.

In this month of Black History and Valentine’s Day, Henrietta’s life is a love story of family meeting science – and gifting humanity, though unknowingly, with the power of discovery and healing, that continues immortally. Henrietta (HeLa) is Black History, forever.

HeLa cells, those given by Henrietta Lacks in 1951, continue to reproduce today. They have been to the moon. They are the source of millions of scientific papers. They prompted new initiatives and strategies for human trials. They are the baseline for innumerable laboratory studies of new pharmaceuticals and vaccines, including COVID-19. We thank you, Henrietta!

Celebrating Henrietta Lacks’ 100th birthday began on August 1, 2020. Led by the Lacks family, the kick-off was an unparalleled sequence of events, beginning with an International Virtual Symposium of scientific notables such as Dr. Francis Collins of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), as well as Rebecca Skloot, author of the bestselling book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” Dr. Ruha Benjamin, Helen Wilson Roe, and Jeri and David, children of David “Sonny” Lacks, and grandchildren of Henrietta Lacks.

Other events that followed included “pop-up” museum exhibits with artifacts and accolades honoring Henrietta’s life and legacy, and the family’s journey. They partnered with the World Health Organization (WHO) to develop plans to eradicate cervical cancer through awareness of vaccines and taking the annual pap smear for women, as well as HPV education for males and females. HPV is preventable and highly treatable.

Through annual HeLa Conferences at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia, created by Dr. Roland Pattillo and Baltimore and Dundalk, Maryland, new scientific information is being introduced and reviewed by other clinicians, scientists, and the general public annually. “Health awareness and equity remain a high priority,” Ms. Jeri Lacks explained.

In January 2021, the Henrietta Lacks Enhancing Cancer Research Act became law, with initial guidance by the late Elijah Cummings. The new law removes barriers to participation in clinical trials for under-represented communities. This is a major breakthrough!

And through the NIH, the family partnered to allow researchers to apply to access the HeLa Genome Data. Three members of the Lacks family are part of the working group, so they know who is seeking to do research. “This sequencing is like a bridge to discovering genetic information that helps researchers solve problems,” Ms. Lacks described, “and we are proud to be a part of that process.”

As the balance of the 100th Birthday of Heroine Henrietta Lacks, Black History legend, continues, the family reminds readers to visit the family website: wwwLacksfamily.com and HeLa100.org to learn more about family strategies to educate the public about Henrietta’s story and their growing healthy community initiatives.

A children’s book is expected to be published soon, and two structures bearing Henrietta’s name are in architectural and first-phase construction. They are the Henrietta Lacks Life Science Center, in Halifax, Virginia and the Henrietta Lacks Hall at Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore, Maryland.

“We congratulate all of the queens who were inducted with our Grandmother into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in December 2020, thanks to the Henrietta Lacks Legacy Group of Turner Station, who nominated her,” said Jeri Lacks.

And in this recovery year, 2021, we salute Henrietta Lacks for her gift that keeps on giving life and health to all of us. To all who have come to love, respect, and honor her, we conclude by saying, “Thank you, Henrietta.”

Jeri Lacks is the daughter of David “Sonny” Lacks, the middle son of Henrietta Lacks. She is an esteemed speaker, historian, and family advocate of the legacy of Henrietta Lacks. In that capacity, she gives generously of her time. We thank her.

To make your lasting gift to health research, consider joining the NIH’s All of Us Research Program! All of Us is building one of the largest and most diverse health research databases in the world. Let’s make sure we’re ALL included by visiting JoinAllofUs.org and clicking JOIN NOW. Or contact the All of Us office at the Medical College of Wisconsin: (414) 955-2689 / Email: allofus@mcw.edu