Curating a living museum in Turner Station
Wednesday, 23 January 2013 13:39

Sharing the legacy of Henrietta Lacks

by Nicole Rodman

    For Turner Station activist and business owner Courtney Speed, sharing the rich history of her community has been a longtime mission.
     While such luminaries as former Sesame Street puppeteer Kevin Clash and astronaut Robert Curbeam have called the community home, one of Turner Station’s most famous former residents went unrecognized for decades after her death.
    In 1951, Henrietta Lacks was a wife and mother of five living in a home in Turner Station.
    Shortly after the birth of her fifth child, Lacks began bleeding heavily.
    A trip to Johns Hopkins (the only hospital that would treat black patients at the time) revealed that she was suffering from stage 1 cervical cancer.
    Though she received radiation treatment, her condition worsened and, on Oct. 4, Lacks died at the age of 31.
    What the Lacks family did not know, however, was that, prior to her death in October 1951, cells from Lacks’ cervix were removed without her permission.
    The harvested cells were unusually prolific. Before long the cells (called ‘HeLa’ cells) were being used to develop treatments for a number of diseases across the globe, including polio, cancer and AIDS.
    It was not until the Lacks family was contacted by medical students who had worked with Lacks’ cells that they realized their family’s place in medical history.

Now, Speed is making it her mission to spread the word of Henrietta Lacks, and the town she called home.
    In 2010, Lacks’ story got a major boost when author Rebecca Skloot released “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”
    Today, thanks to Skloot’s book, people all over the world are learning more about Lacks’ legacy.
    This year in Baltimore City public schools, high school students were mandated to read Skloot’s book.
    In Zenita Jackson’s classroom at Forest Park High School in Baltimore, her senior students quickly found themselves engrossed in the story of Lacks and her amazing cells.
    When they got to chapter seven, however, they realized that Lacks and her family lived just miles away in Turner Station.
    Excited, Jackson got in touch with Speed and planned a field trip to the community.
    According to Jackson, who spoke with The Eagle last week, her students were very excited to get the chance to see history brought to life.
    Arriving in Turner Station on Jan. 14, Jackson’s class was greeted by Speed as well as other members of the community.
    During the trip, Speed led the class to a number of historical spots throughout the community.
    They began at Speed’s Barber Shop & Beauty Salon on Main Street, which the British Broadcasting Corporation visited while filming a documentary on Lacks in 1997.
    The group then visited Union Baptist Church, where Lacks’ legacy is celebrated each August, before heading to Lacks’ former home on New Pittsburgh Avenue.
    During the tour, Speed also pointed out the former homes of Kevin Clash.
    The tour ended at the site of the former Turner Station VFW, which will be renovated as a community center beginning next month.
    While the students expected to visit sites around the area, they did not expect a visit from members of the Lacks family.
    Both David Lacks, grandson of Henrietta Lacks, and Shirley Lacks, wife of Lacks’ son Sonny, were on hand to meet with the Forest Park students and their teacher.
    According to Jackson, her students were amazed, clapping and cheering as if for rock stars.
    Throughout the day, the Forest Park students amazed both Speed and Jackson with their perfect behavior and enthusiasm.
    “Their behavior was immaculate,” Speed noted during an interview last week.
    With the trip a success, Jackson and her class returned to their school, where they shared news of their experience with other classes.
    Now, Jackson says, more students and teachers plan to take the trip down to Turner Station to learn more about Lacks and her legacy.
    As for Speed, she continues to work to preserve the past and present of the community she calls home.
    Harnessing the power of Turner Station’s history, the community will hold a fundraiser to raise funds for the Lacks family and the Community College of Baltimore County’s Henrietta Lacks Endowment.
    Some of the funds will also go to support churches and other organizations in the area.
    Speed is asking for those interested to send a dollar to 201 Main Street, Baltimore, MD 21222.
    The fundraiser will be held through Feb. 1.
    Speed also hopes to share Turner Station’s history as a means of boosting the economy of the community.
    As Speed noted last week, her goal is to help Turner Station become more self-reliant by creating more jobs within the community.
    According to Speed there are currently only 20 paying jobs within Turner Station.
    Her goal is to increase that number to 100 by 2019.
    “We will help create employment in the community to be an asset, not a liability, to the world,” Speed explained last week.
    Overall, however, Speed hopes to share the history of her community as a way to express and preserve a piece of the African-American experience.
    “If we don’t tell about the accomplishments of African-Americans no one will,” she explained, adding, “It is important to tell of our legacy and customs to pass on to future generations.”
    Speed and other community members will also get the chance to celebrate that history during Turner Station’s Black History Month celebration, to be held at Union Baptist Church, 105 Main Street, on Sunday, Feb. 17.
    Through it all, Speed hopes to make people realize the true value, both past and present, of the small community of Turner Station.
    As Speed noted, “The whole Turner Station is a living museum.”