Celebrating Lacks

Left to right, Jeri Lacks Whye, granddaughter of Henrietta Lacks, and Whye's daughters, JaBrea Rodgers, 11, and Aiyana Rodgers, 14, attend the 15th Annual Turner Station Heritage Festival & Praise Day Celebration at Union Baptist Church. Turners Station is honoring its heritage and Henrietta Lacks, whose cells were harvested to help develop medical treatments around the world. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun / August 3, 2012)

Long before the best-selling book about Henrietta Lacks and her immortal cells was written, Turners Station neighbors gathered to honor her legacy, a tradition that continued Saturday.

Lacks' great-granddaughters, born about half a century after her death from cervical cancer in 1951, bounded on the stage of Union Baptist Church, adorned with colorful silk flowers, to welcome the crowd of about 60.

"I'm proud that they took her cells, because it helped the whole world," 14-year-old Aiyana Rodgers said.

"She's a miracle," said Aiyana's sister, JaBrea, 11.

The girls, like the rest of the family, only really learned the extent of Lacks' legacy after Rebecca Skloot's 2010 book, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks." The book detailed how Lacks' cells — taken without her knowledge and reproduced in laboratories around the world — were used to help develop a vaccine for polio and further medical advancements, such as cloning and gene mapping.

Courtney Speed said she was inspired in the late 1990s to organize the Turner Station Heritage Festival & Praise Day Celebration to honor Lacks and the historically black neighborhood in eastern Baltimore County that formed around the steel mills.

The event, now in its 15th year, included the hymn "Lift Every Voice and Sing," a proclamation from Gov. Martin O'Malley to designate the day in Lacks' name and an update on a new endowment at the Community College of Baltimore County in her honor. The endowment needs another $1,500 to be fully established and available to students.

David "Sonny" Lacks Jr., who was 4 years old when his mother died, said he was thrilled at the governor's proclamation and the recognition his mother has received, especially since Skloot's book was published. He has been invited to speak across the country, and said the question he gets asked most often is whether he is angry that the family hasn't benefited financially from the medical techniques created by scientists and for-profit companies.

"They want to know why we're not angry that they made millions and billions of dollars off her cells and I don't even have health insurance," said Lacks, a jovial man who wore a T-shirt with a picture of himself and his grandchildren printed on front. "It helped everybody in the world, so I can't be angry."

His daughter, Jeri Lacks-Whye, said all the family ever wanted was for people to know Henrietta Lacks' story.

"It's an honor," she said. "It's really an honor."

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