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Wonder Woman

The Life, Death, and Life After Death of Henrietta Lacks, Unwitting Heroine of Modern Medical Science

Photo courtesy the Lacks family
Henrietta Lacks

By Van Smith | Posted 4/17/2002

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Trying to find Henrietta Lacks' grave is a lesson in irony. She is now a world-famous woman, yet her body rests in an unmarked plot in a family burial ground next to her childhood house, now long abandoned and close to falling down. No one, not even her relatives, knows precisely which grave plot is hers.

The search starts in Clover, Va., where Henrietta grew up farming tobacco on her family's land. It's a small town of about 200 people in a region southwest of Richmond known as Southside. The first stop--Clover Cemetery, on the outskirts of town--is fruitless; plenty of Lackses but no Henrietta. A quick visit to the post office yields a clue, offered with matter-of-fact bluntness by a man at the copy machine.

"What did you say her name was? Henrietta Lacks? Was she black or white?"

Hearing the answer, he continues: "The cemeteries you can see from the road, they're mostly for whites. You got to go back off the road to get to the black cemetery. So go back up that road and make a right on Lacks Town Road. A lot of blacks live up there. You can't see the cemetery from the road, so you'll have to ask people. But someone up there should be able to help you."

Lacks Town is not really a town but a tiny community of relatives living along a one-mile dead-end road. Trailers, shacks, old log homes, and a ranch house or two are surrounded by small plots of farmland, barns, and machinery, with woods filling in the gaps. It's part of Clover, but Lacks Town clearly has a distinct identity. "They stick together down there," a local woman from the other side of Clover explains later.

In short order, someone helps me out: Otis Ferrell Jr., a young man, probably in his 30s, who immediately recognizes the proffered name.

"Oh, the lady with the cancer cells," he exclaims. "Yeah, she's buried up there." Ferrell points to the top of a hill in a tree-cluttered cow pasture, gesturing toward two downed trees, clearly visible from the road, giant gray hulks lying on their sides next to a large rusty-roofed abandoned building.

"That's where they whupped the slaves," he says candidly (though falsely, his elders later explain). "And one day the trees just came down. The cemetery is just past them and that old house. Yeah, she's up there, but the grave's unmarked. Uncle Clifton knows which one it is."

Clifton Garrett is Henrietta Lacks' cousin, now in his 80s. He lives nearby, about a quarter mile down from Lacks Town Road, and he's burning the leaves in his yard while heating up the barbecue grill. "What, you going to build a memorial?" he retorts when asked if he knows which grave is Henrietta's, in a tone that suggests it's high time someone did. As smoke and embers billow around, he says he's not exactly sure which grave is hers. "I know where her mother is buried," he says. "She must be close by."

Garrett gives a poignant tour of the land where Henrietta Lacks is buried. The property, he says, belonged to Tommy Lacks, who, along with his two brothers, was a patriarch of Clover's African-American Lackses. Tommy was Henrietta's grandfather, and he cared for her and her siblings after their mother died.

"Henrietta was raised up in that house, and her mother was born in it," Garrett says as he strolls past the dilapidated building. "It's called the Old Home House. It was built in slave times. Hadn't nobody lived in this house in many years. Ain't nobody to take care of it, and it just started falling down. But back then, they kept everything clean. When we was children, we played together here. There was a henhouse, an icehouse, a corn silo, a stable. But now there's nothing left of anything."

It's hard to say how many ancestors are laid to rest in the burial ground; many of the graves are unmarked, and the sites have long been trampled by cows. "They knocked the rocks away when they came in and cleaned up with a bulldozer," Garrett explains. "This was a big family," he continues. "Everybody in this cemetery is related one way or another. When they die, they bring them here because this is the family cemetery."

Henrietta's mother, Eliza Pleasant, was buried here in 1924 after she died in Roanoke, Va., giving birth to her 10th child. "I remember when they brought her here," Garrett says. "I was only about 2 or 3 years old, but I remember it. She had a coffin and they opened it, and a little light in the coffin came on. My memory's good."

Eliza's husband, John Randall Pleasant, worked for the railroad in Roanoke, where Henrietta was born in 1920. When Eliza passed away, John moved their children back to the Old Home House to be raised by their grandfather, Tommy. Eliza's grave has a headstone: eliza, wife of j.r. pleasant. jul 12, 1886.-oct. 28, 1924. gone but not forgotten. Indentations in the earth indicate five other unmarked graves in two rows behind the headstone. One of them is John's. One of them is Henrietta's. Neither Garrett nor any other family members I was able to find in Clover or in Baltimore knows which is which.

Clifton Garrett did know Henrietta, though, and remembers her fondly. "She was just an average child. A nice friendly girl and everything. That's all I can tell you. We would play out in the yard, go to school." Going to Clover School, which was for black children and offered instruction through seventh grade, meant a two-mile walk, taking shortcuts through fields, forests, and backyards--and right past Clover Elementary School, then white-only. Garrett still remembers the names of his teachers and the school's principal, and that the principal's son was killed during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

"Henrietta helped on the farm until she went up to Baltimore," Garrett says. That happened in 1943, a short while after her husband moved there for work for Beth Steel. Garrett moved north too, for a job at Beth Steel making nails in the wire mill. "After I got grown, then I went up there. A lot of people from around here did. There were company barracks to stay in, so we used to live in Sparrows Point until we moved to Turner Station. Henrietta's husband, David, worked on the shipyard. He was a hard worker. And Henrietta, she was a nice lady. Nice as she could be. Very friendly. Very friendly, she was."

The dredged-up memories lead Garrett to muse aloud, about how some part of his cousin still thrives. "Her cells are still living," he says, gazing at the ground near her grave. He shakes his head. "She's dead, but her cells are still living," he says again, and then is silent.

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