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Roanoke’s Lee Plaza to be named for native Henrietta Lacks

Published: Jul. 23, 2021 at 9:06 PM EDT
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - Almost 70 years after cancer claimed the life of Henrietta Lacks, the Roanoke native is receiving hometown honors for her contribution to medical research.

Monday, Roanoke City Council voted to rename a portion of Lee Plaza in her memory.

Supporters of the decision say they welcome the recognition, and the opportunity to educate more Roanokers about Lacks’ lasting impact.

She was just 30 years old and living in Baltimore when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Cells that were taken without her knowledge established an immortal cell line.

Dr. Michael Friedlander is the Executive Director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute in Roanoke.

“And as it turns out, that’s been used in many, many very important experiments and medical breakthroughs,” Friedlander said in an interview, “including the polio virus work by Jonas Salk which required the HeLa cells. "

Lacks lived on 12th Street SW as a child. The property where her home was located is now part of Perry Park. Research could lead to a new historical marker in the neighborhood.

The city is still developing plans for Henrietta Lacks Plaza outside the municipal building.

“I would say that that recognition is long overdue,” said Brenda Hale, President of the Roanoke Branch NAACP. “And I am so proud to be able to see this in my lifetime.”

“She’s been recognized across the country in certain ways with books and movies,” said Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea, “but I think we should stand up and say she’s a native Roanoker and she’s still having an impact today.”

Dr. Friedlander agrees.

“It really is an important story in the history of science and medicine,” Friedlander told WDBJ7, “and one that we share with our trainees and our students and will continue to learn from going forward, I’m absolutely sure.”

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