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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What is Lacks Town? How many relatives of Henrietta Lacks lived there? Are Lacks Town and the town of Clover, Virginia still around?
Lacks Town is the ancestral farm of the Lacks family. It has a single road and is across a two-lane road from Clover, Virginia.
Learn about Lacks Town and the changes to Clover since Henrietta Lacks was alive.
Henrietta Lacks Arrives in Lacks Town
Henrietta Lacks was born in 1920 in Roanoke, VA, the ninth child of Johnny Pleasant and Eliza Lacks Pleasant. 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. She was considered the prettiest girl on the tobacco farm, which was called “Lacks Town”.
Although scientists were able to discover the root cause of Henrietta’s cancer, they were at a loss to explain why her cells flourished so incredibly in culture. Henrietta’s Clover relatives, however, had their own theories: Divine punishment for leaving Clover or original sin, or malevolent spirits.
Clover, Virginia in 1999
The population of Clover had dwindled to around 200 when Skloot arrived in 1999. What she found was nearly a ghost town: Although all the stores were seemingly abandoned, there was still brand new merchandise in the clothing stores, and there were half-full shopping carts in the aisles of the grocery store.
Lacks Town, the Lacks’s ancestral farm, was separated from the rest of Clover by a two-lane road. Lacks Town consisted of a single road fronted by dozens of houses of various styles and in various conditions—alongside collapsed shacks that once housed enslaved people were cinder-block homes with modern accoutrements like satellite dishes.
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.
While Skloot was in Clover, Virginia, 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 Henrietta Lacks herself—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.
What Happened to Lacks Town?
In 2009, Skloot drove to Clover to conduct further research only to find the town had been razed.
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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