portrait of Henrietta Lacks with lines building on her image to a grid of connected dots

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot

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What is your impression of the people of Turner Station and Clover in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks? What do you think of the doctors’ decisions regarding blood transfusions and discontinuing cancer treatment?

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The people of Clover were simple farmers who remained on the same land their family had worked as slaves, and the people of Turner Station were people who had moved North for a better future.

The Lacks family can trace its history back to Clover, Virgina, in the tobacco fields.  The family still worked the same fields their ancestors had worked as slaves.  This is where Day and Henrietta grew up in their grandfather’s house, a log cabin that had once housed slaves.  In Clover, most people were poor and worked the land.  Day only finished fourth grade, and Henrietta finished sixth.  It was common for children to grow up in the fields and not finish school.

…Henrietta and Day had been sharing a bedroom since she was four, so what happened next didn’t surprise anyone: they started having children together.  Their son Lawrence was born just months after Henrietta’s fourteenth birthday… (Ch. 2)

For many people, Clover was the place they were born, worked, and died.  This was not the case for everyone.  The people who remained in Clover were either satisfied with that life or didn't have the urge to move on for better.  When they did want better, they moved to places like Turner Station.

Turner Station had humble beginnings as “a small community of black workers” outside Baltimore.  The workers were all employed at Sparrows Point, a steel mill.  At first it was mostly farmlands and swamps.

When demand for steel increased during World War I, streams of white workers moved into the nearby town of Dundalk, and Bethlehem Steel’s housing barracks for black workers quickly overflowed, pushing them into Turner Station. (Ch. 9)

By World War II, Turner Station had some roads and shops, but when the United States entered the war after Pearl Harbor the demand for steel skyrocketed and the government poured money into Turner Station, building houses and infrastructure.  As Sparrows Point became one of the largest steel mills in the world, blacks flowed into Turner Station as part of the Great Migration of blacks from the south.

Staying in Clover does not have to be seen as bad judgment.  After all, people like Tommy, Henrietta's grandfather, needed to remain there to take care of whoever was left behind.  People like cousin Fred Garret wanted more, and took it.  Fred was one of the first to move to Turner Station, before World War II made it famous.

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