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New statue in Virginia, replacing one of Robert E. Lee, will honor Henrietta Lacks

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In recent years, the state of Virginia has removed a number of Confederate monuments, among them a statue of General Robert E. Lee in Roanoke, Va., which was taken down in 2020. In its place, a new statue honors Henrietta Lacks. Lacks was a Roanoke woman who was being treated for cervical cancer in 1951. Doctors took samples of her cancer cells without her consent. And she died later that year at age 31. Her lines of cells have helped with cancer research and the development of many vaccines.

BRYCE COBBS: Her cells regenerate every 24 hours, which was never before seen.

INSKEEP: Bryce Cobbs is the artist commissioned to design the Lacks statue.

COBBS: It was a very, very long process. I don't know how many pieces of paper I threw away (laughter) trying to capture what I really wanted to capture in my head.

INSKEEP: Mr. Cobbs teamed up with Roanoke's Hidden Histories, an organization working to raise awareness of local Black history. Capturing Lacks took some input from her relatives.

COBBS: The family was super helpful. They offered the sculptor, Larry Bechtel, assistance which capturing her likeness by using other family members' resemblances in order to combine a lot of the elements to capture her likeness in that way.

INSKEEP: Now, even though her cells are still used in laboratories today, neither she nor her descendants were ever compensated for the theft of her genetic material. Cobbs hopes his work will allow the Lacks family to reclaim the story of their ancestor and shed new light on the woman she was.

COBBS: Seeing a Black woman in this prominent stance, permanently immortalized in this sculpture, which has inspired a lot of people in the community, honestly. So I really wanted to have a distinguished, powerful pose. And I wanted her looking up. I always remember, like, looking up as being something like a feeling of proudness and of having that confidence in yourself and the strength in who you are.

INSKEEP: We'll see the results before long because sculptor Larry Bechtel will work off Cobb's design. The statue is set to be unveiled next fall.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBERT GLASPER'S "OF DREAMS TO COME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.