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This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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How big is Henrietta Lacks’ family? When researching her book, did Rebecca Skloot talk to many members of the HeLa family? Does the Lacks family still live in Clover, Virginia?

Henrietta Lacks’ family is a large one with many cousins. Her mom gave birth to ten children, including Henrietta and her sister Gladys Pleasant Lacks.

Learn more about some of Henrietta Lacks’ family members.

Henrietta Lacks’ Family: Her Parents

Henrietta Lacks was born in 1920 in Roanoke, VA, the ninth child of Johnny Pleasant and Eliza Lacks Pleasant. Her birth name was Loretta; no one knows how she ended up being called Henrietta.

After Eliza died giving birth to her tenth child, Johnny packed up the entire family and moved them to the Lacks tobacco farm, which was located in Clover, VA. 

Henrietta Lacks’ Family: Her Grandfather and the Lacks Family Farm

Because there were so many Pleasant children, they were divided up among the relatives living on the farm. Henrietta, who by this time was four years old, ended up with her grandfather, Tommy Lacks, in the “home-house”—a log cabin with four rooms, gas lanterns, and no running water.

Tommy Lacks had another grandchild under his care at the time: a nine-year-old boy named David Lacks, whom everyone called “Day.” Day’s mother had abandoned him, and his father was an itinerant worker who’d once passed through town.

Day, Henrietta, and the Lacks family cousins (there were many) spent their days farming: feeding and caring for livestock, tending a garden, and harvesting tobacco. Day was allowed to attend school through fourth grade; Henrietta, through sixth.

Henrietta Lacks’ Family: Her Husband and Five Children

Henrietta and Day were married in 1941, when they were 20 and 25 respectively. Gladys, Henrietta’s sister, objected to the marriage because she thought Day would be a bad husband. They had five children: Lawrence, Elsie, Sonny, Deborah, and Joe.

Henrietta Lacks’ Family: A Few of Many Cousins

After Joe was born in 1950, Henrietta was diagnosed with cancer and underwent radium treatment. During this stretch of time, Day, whom Henrietta still hadn’t told about the cancer, would drop her off at Hopkins in the morning, then go to work; after her treatment, Henrietta would go to her cousin Margaret’s house to wait for Day to finish his shift and take her home. (Henrietta had told Margaret.)

Henrietta’s Funeral and After

The wind was so strong, according to the Lacks cousins that attended the funeral, that it tore one cousin’s cabin out of the ground, killing the cousin inside.

After Henrietta passed, Galen, Henrietta’s cousin, and his wife Ethel moved into the Lacks house in Turner Station to help take care of the children. 

Rebecca Skloot Meets Cousins in Lacks Town

Skloot drove the length of Lacks Town several times before being flagged down by Hector Henry—“Cootie”—Henrietta’s first cousin, who invited Skloot into his home.

Cootie told Skloot that Henrietta was kind and generous—Cootie had had polio in his youth, and Henrietta always told him she wanted to fix it. Cootie also told Skloot that Henrietta’s sickness might have been the result of voodoo, cast either by a person or an evil spirit. Cootie believed that spirits haunted Lacks Town.

Another cousin, who lived just down the road from Cootie and whom Cootie recommended Skloot talk to, took Skloot to see Henrietta’s grave. It was unmarked, and the cousin couldn’t tell Skloot exactly where Henrietta lay.

Henrietta Lacks’ Family: Her Distant Relatives and Racism

While Skloot was in Clover, she encountered firsthand the racism that persisted in the South. When she visited the oldest white Lackses still living in Clover—they were distantly related to Henrietta Lacks’s great-great-grandfather and so distantly related to the Lacks family—they denied their kinship with the black Lackses and disdained the mixing of the races.

And when Skloot spoke with Henrietta’s sister Gladys, she informed Skloot that their youngest sister Lillian had “converted to Puerto Rican”—Lillian was light-skinned and had married a Puerto Rican man, and she was tired of being black.

Henrietta Lacks’ Family Is Large and Has Roots in Virginia

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Rebecca Skloot's "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks summary:

  • How Henrietta's cells became used in thousands of labs worldwide
  • The complications of Henrietta's lack of consent
  • How the Lacks family is coping with the impact of Henrietta's legacy

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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