Chapter 2 Summary

1920-1942

Henrietta Lacks was born in 1920, the eighth of ten children. Her mother died in 1924, at which point her father took all the children to his family’s home in Clover, Virginia and split them up to live with various relatives. Henrietta was placed with Tommy Lacks, her grandfather, in a four-room cabin that had once been home to slaves. This cabin was the center of Lacks family life, and everyone called it the home-house.

When Henrietta moved in, Tommy Lacks was already raising another grandchild, Henrietta’s cousin David Lacks. David, whom everyone called Day, had been born to an unwed mother on the home-house floor nine years before. Henrietta spent the rest of her life with Day, eventually marrying him and giving birth to five children.

In childhood, Henrietta and Day got up early each morning to tend the farm animals and the kitchen garden. When they were finished, they went to work in the tobacco fields with their siblings and cousins. In early childhood, they attended school as well, but neither made it past elementary school.

When they were not working, the many children of Henrietta’s extended family went swimming, held bonfires, and played games together. In summer, the cousins frequently slept all together in a crawl space over a kitchen outbuilding near the home-house. In harvest season, they accompanied Tommy one evening each week on trips to South Boston to sell tobacco. On these trips, they and other black farming families slept alongside farm animals in the basement of the warehouse where the tobacco was sold.

In her early teen years, Henrietta was popular with boys because she was so pretty. Her affections wavered between her cousin Day and another cousin, Crazy Joe. However, she had been sharing a room with Day since she was a young girl, and the eventual result “didn’t surprise anyone: they started having children together.” Their son Lawrence was born when Henrietta was fourteen. Four years later, his sister Lucile, nicknamed Elsie, was born. She was epileptic and mentally retarded. The Lacks family described her as “simple” and “touched.”

Henrietta and Day married two years after Elsie's birth, when Henrietta was twenty years old. After the wedding, they went straight out to work in the tobacco fields. However, their life as farmers did not last much longer. It was 1941, and the United States was just getting involved in World War II. This brought new opportunities for black workers, and Day soon moved to Turner Station, outside Baltimore, to work in a steel mill. A few months later, Henrietta followed.