By Catherine Pugh,
Special to the AFRO
Henrietta Lacks, born Loretta Pleasant in 1920 an African American woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951 has become the subject of books, speeches and a 2017 Movie, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and now a request from Congressman Kweisi Mfume(D-District 7-MD) to receive posthumously a Congressional Gold Medal. “Her cells were stolen from her without her knowledge or family consent, while being treated at Johns Hopkins hospital” said Ben Crump the Lacks’ family attorney.
Those cells which are the only known cells to live outside the body for decades now known as the HeLa cells have been used by research scientist around the world to provide vaccines and cures for polio, hepatitis, aids, COVID and so many other diseases,” Crump says. The Lacks family did not learn of the taking of the cells or their existence until 1973 and have recently filed lawsuits seeking compensation from pharmaceutical companies that have profited from the use of the cells that continue to regenerate themselves.”
Last Wednesday, Congressman Kweisi Mfume took to the House Floor to re-introduce a bill asking that a Congressional Gold Medal be bestowed posthumously to Henrietta Lacks. Mfume first introduced the legislation March 2022, to get the process which requires a two-thirds vote by Congress to move forward. According to the Congressional Archives, “since the American Revolution Congress has commissioned gold medals as its highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions.”
Prior to the floor re-introduction of the legislation Congressman Mfume was joined by Congressional Black Caucus Chair Steven Horsford, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson the family’s attorneys Civil Rights and personal injury attorney Ben Crump who thanked the family and introduced them to the media. Among the attendees was Lawrence Lacks, the only living child at 88years old and several grandchildren.
Ron Lacks a grandson of Henrietta Lacks who authored the book, Henrietta Lacks The Untold Story, said “this is a historical day for the Lacks family. We came a long way. We’ve been fighting since 1973 when we first read about it in Rolling Stone and Jet Magazines. “This is very personal,” says Congressman Kweisi Mfume, who reminded the audience that his family was from the same neighborhood as Lacks and her family, “Turner Station.” “She was loved and known for her great cooking. Our mothers knew each other,” he said.
Lawrence Lacks, the only living child of Mrs. Lacks at 88 years of age was present for the ceremony.
“The Congressional Black Caucus, our members are proud to support efforts to recognize the contributions of Henrietta Lacks for years to come. The Congressional Black Caucus believes that Ms. Lacks deserves this posthumous honor and I want to thank again my colleague Representative Mfume for leading the charge in Congress to see that she does,” said Chairman Horsford.
“ I am here today,” said, Congressman Mfume, “to commemorate and recognize the immortal life of Henrietta Lacks and to do so in a way that I think sets her apart from so many, many others it’s to be able to award Ms. Lacks the Congressional Medal of honor. I will urge all my colleagues in the House and the Senate to move forthwith towards its passage as a real statement of where we are . There are a lot of people in this country and indeed around the world walking around today benefitting from the research and the further development of those cells and all those great cures and vaccines that have been developed go back to the Lacks family and Mrs. Lacks.”
Expressing herself Congresswoman Sheila Jackson from Houston, said “I’m hurt today…filled with joy but hurt. She should have been told what was happening to her. I simply want to apologize to this family publicly. This should never have happened to her. We are grateful for her sacrifice giving us the HeLa cells. She changed lives. Getting her the Congressional Medal Honor posthumously is the right thing to do.”
“Nobody can say that the sacrifices of Henrietta Lacks did not advance healthcare not only people all across America, but Congressman Mfume all across the world have benefited from the sacrifice of your homegirl there in Baltimore, “said Attorney Crump.
Henrietta Lacks son, Lawrence Lacks, said, “I wanted to thank everyone for coming and recognizing my mother and realize that she has done so much for most of her life to make everybody else happy and well being and to get better healthcare.”
Kim Lacks, said, “my father is David (Sonny) Lacks he was the middle son of Henrietta Lacks, I am so honored our whole family is honored and he would be honored if he were here. He would be all smiles. HeLa has been recognized for doing things for the world, but no one knew where those Hela cells came from. “Henrietta Lacks, she continued, “was a mother, she was a wife, she had cousins and friends and family that loved and cared about her, and we are so happy that finally the world is beginning to know about Henrietta Lacks and her family and our legacy.”
“I can’t give a timeline,” said Congressman Mfume, “but we hope to get this done by the end of the year. This is very personal.” When we started this journey Kim’s Father Sonny was still with us.” We can’t waste anytime we want her last living sibling Lawrence Lack to be able to see this get done , said Attorney Crump, “we can’t waste any time.”
Congressman Mfume led the family into a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus where they gave their unanimous support for the legislation that would lead to the Congressional Gold Medal being bestowed posthumously to Henrietta Lacks.
“It’s good and I am glad that my mother would get some recognition for all that she gave. She sacrificed her life for the betterment of others, and nobody seems to recognize that.” Lawrence Lacks.
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