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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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Gary Lacks, Henrietta's nephew, cares for his elderly mother, Gladys Lacks, in Lacks Town. Like many in Clover, he's a religious man, which gives him a unique perspective on his aunt's story.

"I go back to the Book of Genesis when God created man," he says, his voice quickly rising in a crescendo of fervor. "He created him to live forever, really, but man ate up what God told him he couldn't eat, and a process of death took over his body. But the possibility was in man that he could live--and if he could live, then his parts could live." In Gary Lacks' eyes, his aunt's immortal cells are realizing God's original intent for the human race.

Roberta Brooks' view of Henrietta is more down to earth. "I worked in the field with Henrietta and Tommy and most of the Lacks Town folks when I was young," recalls Brooks, another relative who lives near Clover. "I used to hang around more at the Old Home House than at my own house. We'd walk six miles to play together. We used to play on the creek, be teenagers together. Singing, playing horseshoes and ball games, shucking corn. There was lots to do. Children today come home and watch TV, but we had everything to do."

As Brooks' contemporaries got older, many took jobs in Baltimore. "A bunch of them in Lacks Town were working at Sparrows Point," she says. "They were good jobs, about the best jobs paying, and they hired you quick there. They'd stay at the barracks, work all week, then return back to Clover for the weekend. And a lot of them stayed--and are living there still."

Then Brooks touches on a sensitive subject--how Clover's black Lackses and white Lackses are related. "When you get over in Lacks Town, oh, you don't know who's who," she says. "It's a big screwed-up thing. All the white Lackses and all the black Lackses, they're all the same people. We all came up like family together, worked together and everything. And nobody married. Had bunches of children here and there and never married. It's how it is. It's a mess. And it's just so deep, you can't separate it."

The family history informs Brooks' perspective on race relations: "That why I say, we're all just human beings. Not black, not white. Just human beings. So it's all about respect. That's it. Respect."

Gladys Lacks suffered a stroke last year. Her mind and eyes are as clear as day, but she has difficulty communicating. When it comes to the family's tangled history, though, her two words speak volumes. "Master Ben," she says, and leaves it at that.

Records at the Halifax County courthouse offer further explanation. Ben Lacks and Albert Lacks, who were white (and related, although the African-American Lackses no longer recall how), owned the land Henrietta's family worked and her descendants work still. When her grandfather, Tommy, married in 1903, he listed his parents as "Albert and Maria." Tommy's brother, James Lacks, married twice; the first time, he lists "Ben and Maria" as his parents, but the second time his parents are listed as "Albert and Maria." Both white Lacks willed land to their black children. Albert's 1888 will gave 10 acres each "from what is known as the Home Tract" to Tommy, James, and their brother Peter; Ben's will of 1907 gave more land to Tommy and James.

"All of them hooked up together. They're kin," says William Morton, Peter Lacks' grandson. Morton lives near Clover, having moved back after several decades in Baltimore, working at Sparrows Point ("Practically all of these fellows around here worked on the Point," he says) and later for Morgan State University. Although records do not indicate Peter's parentage, Morton says his grandfather "got land because he was kin to the owners." Among Clover's Lackses, he says, echoing his cousin Roberta Brooks, "that's just the way it is."

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