Lacks lives on during virtual luncheon

Students from Morgan State University perform a rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in a pre-recorded performance during Saturday’s Henrietta Lacks Luncheon.

Just before the 70th anniversary of Henrietta Lacks’ Oct. 4, 1951 death, community members gathered in a livestreamed event honoring her legacy.

Lacks was a resident of Turner Station when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer at 31, and was admitted to Johns Hopkins Hospital where her cancer cells were sampled without her consent or knowledge, now the center of legal action the Lacks family announced against a pharmaceutical company this week.

The cells, called “HeLa Cells” in research, kept replicating, and have led to several breakthroughs in medical science since, being used in vaccines, cancer treatments, and AIDS treatments. They were more recently used to study COVID-19 and to develop the COVID-19 vaccine.

“HeLa cells were originally resistant to COVID-19,” Dr. Jason Farley, a Professor of Nursing at Johns Hopkins University, said during the virtual presentation. “Let’s just say Henrietta Lacks was fighting from beyond.”

Although Lacks’ story wasn’t public knowledge until more recently, the Henrietta Lacks Legacy Group, which hosted the virtual Henrietta Lacks Luncheon on Saturday, is working to preserve her legacy for generations to come.

The luncheon, an annual event, aims to raise funds to create a wax figure of Henrietta Lacks to be placed in the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum and raise funds for a CCBC scholarship in her name, which was created through a student-led effort about a decade ago, the same time the legacy group was founded.

The luncheon also promotes the Turner Station community, where Lacks lived her last years, and “serves to extend her legacy, and guard her erasure,” Shirley Lacks, Henrietta Lacks’ daughter-in-law, said at the event.

“The HLLG is part of the yarn that keeps our community so close-knit,” Rev. Donald Jones, who was honored at the luncheon this year as the group’s “Man of the Year,” an award which honors “outstanding men” who have made “positive contributions to the lives of children and families in the community of Turner Station.”

Jones grew up in the Lyon Homes development in Turner Station, and had previously received the Dundalk Optimists Club’s “Boy of the Year” award while he was in high school at Sollers Point.

Then, he was an active student government member and served on the school’s yearbook team. Now, he’s been serving as the president of the Fleming Senior Center’s council for about five years, and has remained active in the Turner Station community, also working with the Turner Station Historical Society.

“Her story has inspired the life that I want,” Aiyanna Rogers, who is Henrietta Lacks’ great-granddaughter, said at the event. Rogers said she is going into the biology field to work on public health issues.

Farley, the keynote speaker, said that there is still work to be done.

While ethical standards in research have evolved since 1951, in part due to Lacks’ case, Farley said Black communities remain disproportionately unrepresented in clinical trials, and questioned how public health issues, such as COVID-19, hit Black communities, the same communities Lacks lived in, harder.

But in the fight against COVID-19, where HeLa cells have been a valuable resource, Farley said he was “honored to be in the fight... with her by my side.”