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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Chapter 16 Summary

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The day Rebecca Skloot met Henrietta’s cousin Cootie, he explained that the Lacks family rarely spoke about illnesses or the dead. People knew about Henrietta’s cells, but they no longer said much about Henrietta herself. As he put it, "...her cells done lived longer than her memory.”

Cootie sent Rebecca to speak with another cousin, Cliff, who had been like a brother to Henrietta when they were children. Cliff gave Rebecca a tour of the home-house, which was now unoccupied and falling down from disuse. He also took her to the graveyard where most of the Lacks family was buried. A few of the graves had stones, but most, like Henrietta’s, were unmarked. Cliff found the stone for Henrietta’s mother and pointed out three unmarked graves nearby. He was pretty sure that one of them was Henrietta’s.

During the graveyard tour, Cliff mused aloud about how strange it was that scientists could keep a dead woman’s cells alive for so many years. He called it “a miracle” that cancer cells could be used to cure disease. Then he shouted at the ground, telling Henrietta that her cells had helped people.

Cliff also commented that Black and White members of the Lacks family were buried together in the graveyard. He chuckled about how “old white granddaddy” was buried among his Black family. He liked the fact that the slave owners of the past were buried among their Black relatives, and he said:

They spending eternity in the same place…They must’ve worked out their problems by now!

Throughout Rebecca’s research, the Lackses insisted that there was no racial ill-will in their community. However, they made frequent references to race during her interviews, and racial divides were very much present in their lives. One indication of this is the fact that they did not know their White neighbors, who were also named Lacks, and who were probably distant relatives.

Henrietta’s great-great-grandfather was probably a White slave owner named Albert Lacks. He died shortly after the Civil War, and he willed part of his land to a group of former slaves. His brother Benjamin also left some of his land to his former slaves. There is no written record showing that Albert and Benjamin Lacks fathered these heirs, but the Black Lackses who remain in Clover, Virginia all believed that they were descended from these two men. The White Lackses, on the other hand, claimed that their ancestors had never fathered any Black children.

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