Baltimore City Paper

Finding Turner Station: The town that gave us Henrietta Lacks' immortal life

Finding Turner Station: The town that gave us Henrietta Lacks' immortal life

Finding Turner Station

The town that gave us Henrietta Lacks' immortal life

By Lisa Snowden-McCray

On the day before "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," starring none other than Oprah Winfrey, is due to premiere on HBO, Mrs. Courtney Speed of Turner Station—the historically black community in Baltimore County where Henrietta Lacks once lived—comes bustling up to City Paper Photo Editor J. M. Giordano and I as if we had an appointment that she was a little late to.

Mrs. Speed—journalism rules say that I should call her just Speed here, but she seems more like a Mrs. Speed—points to a small picture posted in the window of her building. The sign looks as if it had been hastily put together on someone's computer, made to look as official as possible with the word 'missing' spelled out in large red letters. The girl's name is Destiny. The picture shows a pretty, round-faced, light brown girl with her hair straight, pulled back into a bun. The sign says she is 20 but she looks younger than that. It says she was last seen on April 6. Mrs. Speed is helping another Turner Station resident, a little round older lady, who is worried about the girl, and has agreed to put the sign up in her shop window.

In front of Mrs. Speed's shop, a combination barbershop and beauty parlor, we talk about the rash of black children who have recently gone missing in Washington D.C. I look up and down the quiet street, lined with homes that look old, but taken care of, and in her dignified way of speaking, Mrs. Speed tells us that she worries the problem is moving here. She tells me of another girl who was being chased, who knew that if she ran to Turner Station, she'd be OK.

"They know they are safe here," she says.

I am beginning to understand what Turner Station is beyond "The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks," the movie and the book it's based on, which traces the life of the Turner Station resident and the way cells taken without her consent at Johns Hopkins from a tumor inside of her body have helped to facilitate countless medical triumphs—such as a polio vaccine and chemotherapy.

We're here mostly because of Giordano. He understands that, movie and Oprah aside, Turner Station has been mostly forgotten. This tiny corner of Dundalk is much changed from when it was bustling factory town, many decades ago. He wants to get some pictures and post them ahead of the community's approaching moment in the sun, but what I end up thinking about is not Turner Station's most famous name but something bigger: what it means to be black in Maryland, and how the Lacks' story is both everywhere and nowhere, and speaks to exploitation you see in black communities everywhere.

On the website for the organization Baltimore Heritage, Rachel Donaldson discusses Turner Station's modern-day origins as a home to black factory workers who couldn't get housing elsewhere.

"New housing was constructed around World War I in Dundalk for white factory workers, but it excluded black workers," Donaldson writes. "Partially as a result, African Americans focused on building their own community."

Mrs. Speed and her life-sized portrait of Henreitta Lacks (J.M. Giordano/City Paper)

One thing you should know about Mrs. Speed is that she has a life-sized cut-out of Henrietta Lacks in her store that she refers to as "she."

"She's in there laying down right now," she tells Giordano, referencing a small building that serves as a store and fundraising headquarters for the Henrietta Lacks museum she hopes to one day build. "I needed a frame put on her because she's fragile."

Mrs. Speed wasn't born and raised in Turner Station, but she's now its chief historian and number one ambassador. She tells me that she moved here when she met and married her husband. She was working in Baltimore City as a hairdresser, and the barbers in the shop next door told her that they knew of a young man in Turner Station they thought she should meet.

"That was in the late '50s and I came here in the '60s and after being here I would never want to go any other place because it is such a secure area for raising a family," she tells me. "We have done four books, and doing those four books we still haven't captured the epitome of all that was accomplished in this two-by-four community."

Mrs. Speed is generous with her time. At a moment where she could be rightfully suspicious of people coming through with a timely news peg—Oprah's HBO movie—she offers us a tour of Turner Station and agrees to let Giordano photograph her.

She has to go fix her hair before Giordano can shoot and as she heads home for a moment, she tells us to check in with Margaret "Betty" Watkins, her assistant in the hair shop.

Before we head that way, I feel a weird compulsion to tell Giordano all about the Annapolis I grew up in. I grew up in the Parole area, not very far from downtown, where the Naval Academy and all the fancy boats are, but miles and miles away when it comes to the color of the people who live there (black) and their income (working class). There is an exclusive black community not too far from where I grew up that was started by Frederick Douglass' son. I can walk from the home I grew up in to the tiny schoolhouse that my parents, now in their late 70s, attended as kids. Turner Station is dredging up these thoughts and memories because Turner Station feels like home to me.

There's something about all black communities that unites them. They are safe spaces (before safe spaces became a politically fraught word) where residents can speak their own language and try to protect each other as best they can. They all have their own facts and fictions, their own tragedies and triumphs. Many of them (though certainly not all) are marked by lack—lack of access, lack of funds, the fact that people had to make do with what they had and make it great. Turner Station has the stillness that I see in my part of Annapolis, even though those parts are being eaten up by progress and development. It also reminds me of the tiny, sleepy town of Preston, Maryland on the Eastern Shore, where my husband's family is from. All three places seem, in part, almost frozen in time.

Mrs. Courtney Speed, a long-time Turner Station resident, hopes to open a Henrietta Lacks museum. (J.M. Giordano/City Paper)

Because when Mrs. Speed tells you to do something, you do it, we go inside her tiny, cluttered shop to talk to Watkins. On the barbershop side, two men sit in chairs watching television. One of those posters illustrating all the different haircuts the discerning African-American man can choose from is hung on the wall near a small television. It smells like every hair shop I've ever been in. I'm reminded of all the years I'd spend hours in the salon getting my hair relaxed, wrapped around my head to dry, and then curled and sprayed with oil sheen that smelled cotton-candy sweet.

"Mrs. Speed needed someone to come here and help her because she was going out on maternity leave. I told her I would be here for three months, ended up 43 years almost," Watkins says.

Watkins looks like the kind of woman I've always wanted to be—feminine, pulled together. Whereas I can hardly be bothered with mascara and some lip gloss, Watkins' hair is curled and her eyeliner is expertly applied. She seems bashful, but also accommodating to two strangers who walked into her place of business and then started asking questions and taking pictures.

She says that Turner Station was a much different place many decades ago, with stable, steady factory money flowing.

"You couldn't beat the salary . . . so I said, 'Good pay, and I'm at home,' I have no travel or anything; I can walk home in two minutes," Watkins says. "Bethlehem Steel, Western Electric, General Motors, you know. I said I guess I'll stay here, but I wasn't planning on staying this long,"

Henrietta Lacks' house in Turner Station. Her famous photo was taken where the table stands now. Her home is across the street from another famous Turner Station resident, Kevin Clash, the creator of Sesame Street favorite Elmo. (J.M. Giordano/City Paper)

Then she talks about how Turner Station has changed.

"The whole economy, neighborhood, everything has calmed down. It's nothing like it used to be in Turner Station. These are all new people here, we don't even know these people," she says. "My older customers have all died out, dwindled down. The new crowd that we have in Turner Station now, they are the young girls they get the hair and they stick on, and they shave it off or whatever, I'm not into the new styles. I still have a few older customers, matter of fact I'm waiting for two to come in now."

She has no plans to pick up and move.

"Oh I can't go anywhere. I'm 71 years old, I'm not going anywhere now. I'm like in retirement because I have one or two customers come. No I can't go anywhere, nobody wants me," she says with a laugh.

Finally, Mrs. Speed reappears, and after getting her photo taken (on her good side, the left side, with her hand on her hip like Lacks in the iconic photo of her), Mrs. Speed invites Giordano and I to hop into her van so that she can give us a tour of Turner Station. We also pick up a young man named Keith who, Mrs. Speed tells us, is going to help her load tables for the event where the movie will be screened tomorrow in Turner Station. Keith surely didn't sign up for a tour of the place where he lives, but seems content enough to ride along with us.

It's hard to place how old Keith is. He has close-cropped hair and dark skin. His slightly baggy polo shirt and jeans indicate he could be anywhere from his mid-20s to his mid-40s. He is silent but accommodating throughout our tour—patient in the way that indicates that he's used to dealing with older people.

Before the tour starts, I note that I had not yet read Rebecca Skloot's book, "The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks." Mrs. Speed gasps. I try my standard (and true!) excuse: I have a full-time job and two kids.

She gently checks me.

"Oh, OK. Well you're talking to a widow who raised six sons without the help of federal, state, or county. So when my husband died in 1978 I had to raise sons under God, being God-employed."

I make a mental note to read the book as soon as possible.

As we drive around, Mrs. Speed points out the seven churches that make up this small community. She points out a building that had once housed a state-of-the-art movie theater, and the home of the black doctor who had initially treated Henrietta Lacks. She tells us that the squat, red brick homes that make up a large part of the community were designed by a black architect named Hilyard Robinson and are being renovated, 20 at a time.

"Betty," an employee of Speed's Beauty Shop, has lived in Turner Station for almost 50 years. (Reginal Thomas II/For City Paper)

Turner Station connects to everywhere. The more people I told that I was writing about this place, the more connections I discovered. On the tour, Mrs. Speed pointed out the childhood home of Kevin Clash, the original voice of "Sesame Street's" Elmo. Black astronaut Robert L. Curbeam Jr., former NFL player Calvin Hill, and former president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Kweisi Mfume are from here, too. When my cousin was at Morgan, she interned at Ransom's Boutique, a fancy dress shop at Towson Mall, and the owner was from Turner Station. When I finally read the book, I found out Henrietta Lacks' disabled daughter was sent to Crownsville State Hospital, the now-closed institution where many of my aunts worked when I was growing up. It also turned out that I know someone who is not only from Turner Station, but a relative of Henrietta Lacks. Her name is Erica Pack and she's about my age. Even though she was there in the late '80s and '90s, the Turner Station she describes isn't much different than the one that Mrs. Speed and Watkins talk about.

I first met Pack and her husband at Applebee's karaoke—my husband calls this quite lit suburban chain Crunk-a-bee's—near my house in White Marsh. We all became fast couple-friends. She's pretty with a round face and delicate doll-like features and looks much younger than 36. She and her husband are also deeply proud of where they come from—of their immediate families and their African ancestry. It's impossible to talk with her for any length of time without her holding out her phone and pulling up photos of her children, various cousins, parents, great-grand parents, and more.

We meet to talk about her life in Turner Station in her Parkville home. Pack says she lived in Turner Station until she was 9, and visits family members who still live there often.

"Growing up was pretty much picturesque. We didn't have a lot, but nobody knew that because you have all your family living around, my grandparents lived in walking distance, my mother's mother did too, so both sets of parents' families are from Turner Station so everybody was just around," she says.

A lot of Pack's memories are of nature: "My earliest memories are of the pond, weeping willow trees, which Turner Station had a lot [of], and being right off the water. My dad would take us to go crabbing, fishing, right off the water."

Pack says that she connects the community that she was a part of in Turner Station as something that pre-dates slavery.

"Earlier today I was listening to a lecture, he was talking about pretty much returning to our roots and community—so this whole lecture is on African rites of passage—but he was talking about the respect that we had for each other, how young people respected the elders and how men respected women. And he was saying you could see the bums, they be out there drinking and using foul language, but let a woman and a child walk by and they say 'excuse me ma'am,' That's how it was in Turner Station," she says. "We didn't call them bums, we called them winos, so there would be plenty of winos on the corner but we weren't afraid of them, it was always respect, it was always respect for the women, the children, they wouldn't curse around us, they wouldn't do anything unsightly. They had their brown paper bags, they had their drink, but they were very, very respectful."

Pack says safety in the tiny community was never an issue. Everyone looked out for one another.

"We felt complete safety. We had this man—Zeke the Freak is what he called himself—so as I got older I found out that Zeke had gone to whatever war and his mind was just messed up," she said. "He would put on a sheet like a cape and he would climb a pole and jump on the top of a bus as it was going by. Zeke saved a child from getting hit by a car; Zeke, when I was little, my sister and I were playing in the yard and the ball rolled out and he's like 'uh uh, don't come out here, don't come in the street' and he went and got it, threw it back over."

Pack, her husband, and her two children are all in the process of changing their more standard "American" or "European" names to Nigerian ones. Soon, Pack will legally be Eya Kwento. She, like a lot of black people, is looking to re-establish the connections that slavery tried to extinguish. Inside her home, art from different countries in Africa adorns her walls. A drum sits in a corner.

"I think all these communities, you just feel this spirit of tribalism," she says. "We were each other's people. . . . You just had people [say], 'Oh that's little Linda'—I look like my mom, my mom is Linda. If I go down there today it'll still be some people, and I don't have a good grasp on who they are, but it's like, 'Oh you Stevie and Linda's child.'"

Erica Pack goes through family photos at her Parkville home. (Reginal Thomas II/For City Paper)

Tribes mean safety, and for Pack, so did Turner Station. Because of this, she and her family never really ventured into nearby, white working class Dundalk unless they had to.

"White people didn't mess with us, there was no white people that came down there," she says. "Now, when my mom was little, she had to walk to the store . . . which I guess technically is Dundalk because it's past the sign where Turner Station is, so she went to the store and she told me she's had dogs chased on her before, of course called nigger. My grandmother, her mother, would have my cousin with her and my cousin . . . You would think he was white, he was very, very pale, so my grandmother would be taunted like, 'Whose white baby do you have with you?' But that was only what you got when you were in Dundalk, when you had to go near the white people. They did not come down Turner Station."

Pack's family came here from the south looking for work at the mills, but there were other professions represented, too. So for Pack, blackness wasn't viewed as a limitation. She saw her own black working-class parents, but also blackness reflected in a variety of other professions: "Most of [my family] worked at Bethlehem Steel, but the other thing that's interesting too is while most of them were blue-collar workers, there was still images of black doctors, black business owners. A lot of kids now, they don't see themselves being able to be an entrepreneur or an owner. Now I didn't know the steps to do that because I come from working class people, so you can't ask me how do you become a business owner, I don't know!" she laughs. "Ask Mrs. Speed maybe?"

Talking about family with others often churns up memories of your own past. Talking to Erika about Turner Station got me thinking more about Annapolis.

I thought about the family stories I was raised on. My mother's mother, Frances, loved to go to Washington, D.C. to sing and party. Her grandmother, who was a midwife, died on her way out to deliver a baby. My parents attended Wiley H. Bates High School, a segregated, all-black school. My mother told me that kids were bused in as far as the Eastern Shore to attend classes there. My parents have also told me about Carr and Sparrow's Beach—black-only beaches in Annapolis (not far from where I attended elementary school) where black families could enjoy being by the water, and where you could go to hear James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, and others when they came through town.

If you get nothing else from realizing this, know that black people always make a way.

My first memories of Annapolis are at my Aunt Daisy's house. She's one of the aunts who worked at Crownsville and, although she worked nights, her days were spent taking care of me, and my brother, and my other cousins—all throughout the summer and on sick days and days off during the school year. My Uncle Jerome and Aunt Rosalee lived "up the hill" from my Aunt Daisy's house, in the home that had at one point, somehow, housed my dad, his parents, and their 12 other kids long ago. We'd play with my cousin Kia, who always got the best toys for birthdays and Christmas, and run around outside Aunt Daisy's house and up the hill.

As I got older, my world got a little bigger. I started going to downtown Annapolis to run, or sit by the water, or (when I was even older) to check out midshipmen. I loved downtown for how pretty it was, for the water and crisp, white boats, how it felt like tangible history, and in spite of its blinding whiteness.

Erica Pack holds a photo of her great grandparents on their wedding day. (Reginald Thomas II/For City Paper)

After I spoke to Pack about Turner Station, I wanted a little more insight into my hometown, so I reached out to a woman I had never met, but had been following with interest on Facebook for a few years. Her name is Janice Hayes-Williams and she has made it her business to learn the history of black people in Annapolis. She writes detailed Facebook posts about different black families in the area, she has learned a lot about Crownsville State Hospital (formerly known as the Maryland's Hospital for the Negro Insane) and she also does walking tours of Annapolis.

"Nobody was telling our story," she says over the phone. "It wasn't anywhere, so I'm like 'I don't need anybody's permission to walk through the streets and tell the story of where I was raised. I'm seventh generation Anne Arundel County. My grandmother's uncle is Wiley H. Bates. My uncle George was the first African-American law enforcement officer in Anne Arundel County."

She tells me details that help me understand more about the city as it is today. She stumbles back and forth over history as she speaks, clarifying and adding to the story as she goes: "[On the tour] I talk about three different types of people: the gentry, the indentured servants—who all the black men had babies by, that's why all these light-skinned people in our town," she says, "—and the slaves. Nobody else does that, nobody else can do that. Nobody else can stand in front of a house and tell you everybody who's in there. Because we don't have slave quarters. We didn't have slave quarters in Annapolis. So everybody lived in the same house, until you started having babies and that's how we started renting from white people so they could have their slaves living out, you understand. They went to work just like we go to work: Go in eight o'clock, leave at five."

She says there were plenty of white people learning their history, diving deep into what she calls "primary source documents" that give you real, tangible details about what people were doing hundreds of years ago. Once she tapped into those networks, a wealth of information opened up.

"It's not about what you remember, because you only remember what's in your family line or what somebody tells you. But it's another thing to be able to go in and know what the street looked like and look at . . . inventories and manumission papers and who owned who and who got free," she says. "My church Asbury is the first church for people of color in Anne Arundel County. It was established in 1803. Everybody thinks its Mt. Moriah. No, Mt. Moriah came from Asbury."

She tells me about how parts of downtown Annapolis still have the footprint of a slave quarter. "This history is so rich," she says and then recommends a book, "The Slave Community" by John Blassingame. "In that book what he talks about is enclaves of descendants of slaves sometimes don't leave the culture. For example, Clay Street. Lots of people think Clay Street is the first black community [in Annapolis] but it wasn't. It was behind my church, what they call City Gate Lane. The black community started there. So that community started to grow, but when you have descendants of slaves and then we live in those communities, they become slum communities, then HUD has to come in and say 'OK, we got to do public housing,' and then we live in public housing for generations. This is a slave community."

She tells me that black families lived there, not far from the Annapolis City docks, until they got more education and stable work. When that happened they moved to Parole, where I grew up and where my parents grew up.

It's all so much—history that is valuable, but has been ignored and underappreciated for so long.

A Turner Station resident waits for the screening of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” being held at Fleming Senior Center, to begin. (Reginald Thomas II/For City Paper)

I finally got around to reading "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks." There's a reason why Oprah wanted to get her hands on the book. Skloot does an excellent job of weaving together several stories in one: the tale of what happened to Lacks and her family, the way the relationship between patients and doctors has changed over the years, and the importance of medical research in saving millions of lives. I was left, however, with an overwhelming sense of sadness. Lacks' family suffered a lot because of systemic racism and lack of access. This would have been true anyway, but the miracle of the HeLa cells, those cells stolen from Lacks' body, put her family's lack of access in stark relief.

Skloot reports there was some healing. Deborah, Lacks' daughter, who helped Skloot with her research, died happy that her grandchildren were doing well in school, and hopeful that education would afford them greater access to the things that would give them a better life. A young researcher at Johns Hopkins reached out to Skloot and Deborah Lacks, and not only acknowledges that the organization handled Lacks' case poorly, but also lets her see her mother's cells for herself.

And there's Mrs. Speed, still in Turner Station, a force of nature and well-versed in dealing with nosey journalists like me. For now, Turner Station still stands. It's not what it was, but it's there.

I called the number listed on that "missing" sign I saw posted in Mrs. Speed's window. The girl is now home safe.

"Thank you so much for calling and checking," the woman on the other end of the phone says before she hangs up.

Lisa Snowden-McCray

Lisa Snowden-McCray

Lisa Snowden-McCray is a community coordinator for the Baltimore Sun. She formerly worked as a writer and associate editor with the Baltimore City Paper. She’s also written for The Afro-American Newspapers, located in Baltimore, Md. She is an alumna of Towson University, and grew up in Annapolis, Md.