Review of Times Right Now by smokin’ Piedmont acoustic singer-songwriter, Jon Shain

Jon Shain and his Trio will be performing this evening (Saturday, July 17) at The Soul Cafe in Durham, NC, together with Washington, DC’s The Grandsons and Pat Wictor. The Soul Cafe is an alcohol-free venue near Durham’s Brightleaf Square. Sadly, I’m out of town and can’t attend – but you should. Click here for more information on tonight’s show from Jon’s Facebook page.
Times Right Now cover.jpgTimes Right Now is the 6th album by Piedmont Blues guitarist Jon Shain since he went solo in 1998 after a decade with his folk-rock group, Flyin’ Mice, and their spinoff, WAKE.
Shain’s album covers as much diverse ground as you might expect from a Jewish boy from a Massachusetts milltown who came to Duke to major in American history and seek the mentorship of legends in the Piedmont blues style (biography here). There’s something for everyone on this album regardless of one’s musical preferences.
Perhaps the greatest departure for Jon is the partnership with The Grandsons from DC who add a layer of vintage horns not normally seen on previous albums. Hailing largely from DC, The Grandson bring a self-described “pawn shop of instruments” to the effort. Together with members of his time-tested trio, FJ Ventre on bass, Bill Newton on harmonica, and John Currie on dobro, Times Right Now is a work of finesse and strong songwriting and musicianship while also serving up a few earbugs for even the casual listener.
Self produced with Scottsburg Jonze and Jackson Hall, it’s the fresh mixing of Chris Stamey that comes to the forefront from the first note. Stamey, a long ago member of the dBs and outstanding guitarist in his own right most recently partnering with his old mate, Peter Holsapple, has made a consistent name for himself with his recording and production skills. Stamey brings the clarity and authenticity of each instrument to the overall mix and Holsapple even shows up for a guest appearance. After listening to Auto-Tune-worked songs and sampling loops out the wazoo elsewhere, it’s truly refreshing to hear exquisite playing that doesn’t skimp on melody and hooks.

Continue reading

What is this Juneteenth of which you speak?

Juneteenth image.jpgA couple of reader questions came in this week following our interview with the inspiring African-American leader and mentor, Jason Dorsette.
I had mentioned therein about first meeting Mr. Dorsette two years ago this week at a local Juneteenth celebration. A few readers, even those in the southern United States had not heard of this commemoration. So, since today is the ascribed date of Juneteenth and the US Father’s Day weekend is typically the time that municipal celebrations are held, I thought I’d leave you with a brief description and some good links.
I can’t do any better than TIME’s Gilbert Cruz as he began his 2008 article, A Brief History of Juneteenth:

There is a common misconception among Americans that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves with a stroke of his pen. Yet the Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863, did no such thing — or, at least, it didn’t do a very good job of it. Two and a half years later, on June 19, 1865, Union soldiers sailed into Galveston, Texas, announced the end of the Civil War, and read aloud a general order freeing the quarter-million slaves residing in the state. It’s likely that none of them had any idea that they had actually been freed more than two years before. It was truly a day of mass emancipation. It has become known as Juneteenth.

From the Texas State Library and Archives Commission:

Juneteenth, celebrated on June 19, is the name given to emancipation day by African-Americans in Texas. On that day in 1865 Union Major-General Gordon Granger read General Orders, No.3 to the people of Galveston. It stated,
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

Continue reading

Jason Dorsette: Maximizing collegiate success for African-American men

pic2.jpgIn the 18 years from my first faculty appointment, one of the most satisfying parts of the journey has been watching students come through my life who you can tell – you just “know” – are going to make a huge difference in the world. (I previously wrote of one of these here, Arizona clinical pharmacist, Sandra Leal, PharmD.)

Well, two years ago, I was at the kickoff of a Juneteenth celebration at my new institution and was immediately drawn to this striking young man who, after speaking with him for a spell, convinced me that he was going to be one of these kinds of students.

It’s not just that he stands out from a crowd because he’s taller than me. Anyone who has met Jason Dorsette will tell you that the man just simply exudes warmth and elegance. And not just because he is literally tall, dark, and handsome. He makes you feel welcomed, listened to, and valued. You see him making an impact in everything he touches, from leading the NCCU Graduate Student Association to building through Habitat for Humanity to leading a new university initiative to cultivate young African-American men for collegiate success.

I view Mr. Dorsette as a role model. And I’m just a professor from a completely different discipline.

In our continuing series reviewing issues raised at the Centennial HBCU Symposium in Research Triangle Park, NC on June 3-4, 2010, I want you to know more about Jason Dorsette. I have no doubt that you will hear much more about him in the years to come.

Continue reading

Amy Bishop indicted for 1986 shooting murder of brother

Was just checking the old SiteMeter stats before foraging for dinner and saw a surge in search hits for “Amy Bishop.”
Yup. Lo and behold she has been charged with murder – for the 1986 death of her brother.
From an article an hour ago by Donovan Slack and Shelley Murphy at the Boston Globe:

The slaying of Seth Bishop was declared an accident by Norfolk County authorities at the time. But questions were raised about the investigation after Bishop, a college professor, was charged in February in a shooting rampage at the University of Alabama Huntsville. Three of Bishops’ colleagues were fatally shot and three wounded in that case.
[District Attorney William R.] Keating said an indictment warrant has been lodged with Alabama authorities. He indicated that he would give the Alabama triple murder case priority. Asked whether Bishop would ever be tried in Massachusetts for murder, Keating said, “You never know.”
. . .Shortly after the Alabama shootings, Keating launched a review of the Braintree slaying and concluded that Bishop should have been charged at the time with assault with a dangerous weapon, unlawful possession of a firearm and illegal possession of ammunition.
Keating also found that police reports, along with crime scene photos, suggested Bishop may have intentionally shot her brother. One photo of her bedroom, where she had loaded the 12-gauge shotgun, showed a National Enquirer article chronicling actions similar to Bishop’s that day. The article reported that a teenager wielding a 12-gauge shotgun killed the parents of actor Patrick Duffy, who played Bobby Ewing on the television show, “Dallas,” and then commandeered a getaway car at gunpoint from an auto dealership.

Many a “what if?” reverberating across the Southland this evening.
The following list provides our previous posts on the gut-wrenching Amy Bishop murders at the University of Alabama – Huntsville:

Continue reading

Brian Kennedy on the continued relevance of HBCUs

As launched with yesterday’s post, we’ll be spending this week presenting my impressions of a symposium held on June 3-4, 2010, entitled, “Setting the Agenda for Historically Black Colleges and Universities.” Sponsored by North Carolina Central University, one of five HBCUs in the University of North Carolina system, this gathering of national education leaders culminated a year long celebration of the centennial of the 1910 founding of the institution by businessman, teacher, and pharmacist, Dr. James E. Shepard.
A native of Raleigh, Shepard earned a Ph.G. in pharmacy (the original pharmacy degree) in 1894 from the Leonard Medical School at Shaw University. After establishing the first pharmacy in Durham that served African-American clientele, Shepard was central to the founding of two institutions that established the Bull City as a beacon of Black business activity in the South: the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company (1898) and Mechanics & Farmers Bank (1907).
HBCUs have tended to focus on their rich history of struggle and accomplishment but the symposium focused on moving forward as an institution in today’s highly-competitive higher education landscape and global economy. Scholars far more qualified than I have held forth on the continued relevance of the HBCU.
But as a white professor from the North at a HBCU, what I find most refreshing is learning from students about how the HBCU experience is relevant to them – today. I want to share one example with you in this post.
Brian Kennedy is a native of the Charlottesville, Virginia area and is a rising junior in political science at NCCU. He was recently elected vice-president of the NCCU Student Government Association. Brian qualifications could have easily gotten him into UVa, or any university for that matter, but he chose only to apply to Howard University and NCCU. (This reminds me of a Temple University commercial on Philadelphia television stations in the early 1980s featuring Bill Cosby speaking about specific students and their qualification with his tagline, “She could’ve gone anywhere. She chose Temple.”)
On day one of the HBCU Symposium, Brian gave the lunch address in a session entitled, Student Matters: Manifestations of the HBCU Experience. Brian was swamped with attention following the session but he took time later in the day to share with Terra Sigillata readers the highlights of his talk. Toward the end we also shared a few laughs as to whether students want blogging professors in their social media affairs.


Many thanks to Mr. Kennedy for talking with us about his talk and his own influences and motivations for choosing to attend a HBCU.

NCCU Centennial HBCU Symposium – Setting the Agenda for Historically Black Colleges and Universities

HBCU Symposium.jpg
On June 3rd and 4th, I had the pleasure of attending a fabulous program on the modern role and future sustainability of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the United States. The HBCU Symposium: Setting the Agenda for Historically Black Colleges and Universities was the culmination of the 100th anniversary of the founding of North Carolina Central University (NCCU).
NCCU is one of five HBCUs in the University of North Carolina system and among 11 such institutions of higher learning in the state (list and links here). I currently serve on the faculty of this institution.
For those unfamiliar, HBCUs were classified by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Higher Education Act of 1965 as institutions established prior to 1964 with the intention of providing higher education to the Black community. There remain 105 such institutions today, primarily in established former slave states following the Civil War.
However, the original HBCUs were founded in the North prior to the Civil War by the generosity of Quaker, Episcopalian, and other abolitionist supporters of the day: what is now Cheyney University (1837) and Lincoln University (1854) in Pennsylvania and Wilberforce University (1856) in Ohio.
Our September 2008 post for National HBCU Week provides more introductory background on these institutions as well as a round-up of commentary around the blogosphere on the continued relevance of these institutions.
It is important to note that the special federal classifications of these institutions was not meant for any preferential treatment of Black students but rather simple parity with historically White institutions. But among public HBCUs, state higher education funding per student averages about 3/5ths that of historically White institutions, a fraction whose irony is not lost on me.

Continue reading

Flue-cured solar power

This is not your father’s North Carolina.
2010 05 30 061.jpg
On my trip last weekend to southern Virginia, I passed by this business park in Roxboro, NC in Person County. The county sits immediately north of Durham County, home of the Research Triangle Park, and runs to the Virginia border.
This is a microcosm of today’s North Carolina. Tobacco is still relatively strong, particularly as smoking continues to grow in Asia, thereby allowing us to slowly kill a whole new market. However, tobacco jobs pale in comparison to what they once were with many people out of work.
But I credit the state’s best economic development minds in science & technology and other areas with their long-range plans to replace tobacco with other crops – hops, muscadine grapes, medicinal plants – and adapt the state’s well-known technological innovations to provide jobs for those displaced in the furniture, tobacco, and textile industries, particularly in the large rural areas of the state.
One of the most interesting parts of living in the American South is the juxtaposition of technology and tradition – this photo captures one of those moments for me.

What does it take to knock off K2 Spice readership?

Just the other day, I wrote about how DrugMonkey and I have experienced unprecedented and sustained blog traffic for posts we wrote in February on K2 Spice, one of a couple of marijuana-like “incense” products still sold legally in the United States.
Every morning, I dial up my SiteMeter blog statistics and take a look at what posts readers first land upon when coming to visit the humble world headquarters of Terra Sigillata.
Last week, 2,700 to 2,800 of the 4,000 most recent hits were landing on our February K2 Spice post. (You will also note below the sad state of my readership in that posts on Stiff Nights erectile dysfunction supplement and Horny Goat Weed products are the next most popular direct hits.)
Finally, one post has knocked it out of the top spot after nearly four months:
Monday’s post about the memorial unveiling of the gravestone for Henrietta Lacks this past weekend.
Henrietta Lacks knocks off K2 Spice.jpg
I have been completely overwhelmed by the interest in this story. This widespread attention would not be possible without the Facebook and blog referrals by author Rebecca Skloot, The New York Times Science page, and the enthusiastic Twitter referrals by other writers who I respect greatly such as David Dobbs, Sara Goforth, Mike Rosenwald, T. DeLene Beeland, Ted Winstead, scribbler50, Eric Ferreri, – as well as the dozens of you sci/med bloggers and folks from other walks of life who found this post worthy of recommending to your friends.
Please accept my apologies if you were not mentioned by name – I don’t have Bora Zivkovic’s flair for aggregating and linking to every referral but you have my gratitude for further popularizing the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family.
And for those of you so inclined, here are images of the memorial program that weren’t included in the last post:

Continue reading

Marking the magnificent memory of Henrietta Lacks


Henrietta Lacks gravestone 05.30.10 copyright David J Kroll
In addition to my own photos herein, Tom McLaughlin posted a nice slide show of the day at his South Boston News & Record.

Despite two trees that snapped and fell in my driveway within six feet of my car in an impressive thunderstorm Friday evening, I drove on Saturday morning to Clover, Virginia, for the dedication of a gravestone that finally marks the final resting place of Henrietta Lacks, a concrete honor, if you will, to recognize the source of one of the most valuable medical tools of the 20th century and today.

For those who are not regular readers, Henrietta Lacks was a rural tobacco farmer, mother, wife, daughter, sister, and friend from southern Virginia who developed an unusually aggressive case of cervical cancer while living in Baltimore in 1951. While being treated at Johns Hopkins University, surgeons excised pieces of her tumor in an ongoing effort by the laboratory of Dr. George Gey to establish a continuously growing human tumor cell line in culture, a feat that had only been previously accomplished with mouse cells.

Ms. Lacks’s cells are today known by the name, HeLa (hee-luh), and have been used from the 1950s in testing the effectiveness of the original Salk polio vaccine up through today providing the basis for the new cervical cancer vaccines. I would not be overstating the case to say that most biomedical scientists have at one time or another worked with HeLa cells.

However, the identity of Henrietta Lacks as the unknowing donor of the cells that gave rise to so many medical discoveries – a poor Black woman, mind you – as well as the story of her family and their travails at the hand of the medical establishment had largely gone untold until the 1980s, even among scientists themselves.

But with the help of the family – especially Henrietta’s late daughter, Deborah – scientists, historians, and her own tenacious investigative skills, journalist and author Rebecca Skloot spent the last ten years researching and gorgeously crafting a book on the HeLa story that has become this year’s best-selling non-fiction gem, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. If you have not yet read the book, you are missing out on what Dwight Garner of The New York Times called, “one of the most graceful and moving nonfiction books I’ve read in a very long time.”

A black woman, a white boy, and a PhD
My own interest in the story extends beyond my general fascination with the history of science and medicine. It is far more personal.

As I wrote in November on the 20th anniversary of my PhD dissertation defense, HeLa cells were the primary experimental system for my study of the anticancer drug target, DNA topoisomerase IIα. Moreover, HeLa cells were also the source of genomic DNA that I needed to understand the enzyme’s regulation when I started my own laboratory in 1992. They ended up providing the topic of the first published paper from my independent group: me, my first PhD student, and first technician.

So when I learned that from the South Boston (VA) News & Record that the Lacks family had planned a memorial dedication service for Ms. Lacks’s headstone, I just had to attend.

The headstone was provided by a Morehouse School of Medicine donation from Dr. Roland Pattillo and his wife, Pat. Dr. Pattillo is an ob/gyn physician-scientist at the Morehouse School of Medicine who has largely been the medical guardian of the Lacks family and who provided the entré to Ms. Skloot after she convinced him of her sincerity in telling the story of the family and their matriarch.

Dr. Pattillo is also himself a notable scientist of historic stature and a living connection to Dr. George Gey. Among his own four decades of accomplishments, Dr. Pattillo worked at Hopkins with Gey in the sixties on the hormonal aspects of neuroendocrine tumors and, as detailed in a 1968 Science paper, established the BeWo choriocarcinoma cell line, the first immortalized line to produce human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG). hCG is the hormone produced by the placenta that is detected in clinical and home pregnancy tests.
Kroll Pattillo 05.29.10 002 copyright David J Kroll

To the right is Dr. Pattillo at the gravesite with an unnamed science blogger showing off his 20-year-old dissertation. To the right are two Lacks family members sharing addresses on top of Skloot’s book. You’ll note that the gravestone is also in the shape of a book, representing the many stories that have come from the legacy of Henrietta Lacks.

The service began at St. Matthew Baptist Church in Clover, the church where Henrietta had been a member since 1932. My intention had been just to drive up and quietly pay my respects, maybe even get a photo of my dissertation at Henrietta’s gravesite. Such intentions were derailed by one of the nice usherette ambassadors at St Matthew who asked if I was a dignitary (no). She then insisted that I sit with the press and go have a word with the pastor, Reverend Alfred Chandler.

Reverend Chandler then asked that I speak to the standing room-only congregation that included dozens of Lacks family members about how my personal and professional life had been touched by the woman from Clover. Time was set aside for friends and family to share such brief reflections.

Just as an aside: I’ve now lived in the South for a third of my life. For the last ten years I’ve lived in a town with an equal 45% African-American and White population and am a professor at a historically-Black university, North Carolina Central University. It never ceases to amaze me how warmly welcoming the Black community has been to me, everywhere from Virginia to Florida, and in a manner that belies the converse treatment of the community for centuries. In fact, if I could join a Black congregation, I’d probably still be going church.

I was beaming when I learned that the first scripture reading was the famous Ecclesiastes passage (3:1-8) upon which Pete Seeger wrote Turn! Turn! Turn! (The song was made popular by The Byrds in 1965 and discussed on this blog, with a Byrds reunion performance, here.). In the context of the other speakers, it was clear that this day was one to heal, build up, laugh, dance, and, most certainly, a time to embrace – I haven’t been hugged so much since my last visit with my large family from New Jersey.

Kimberley Lacks 05.29.10 copyright David J KrollOpening words on behalf of the Lacks family were offered by Kimberley Lacks, daughter of Sonny Lacks, granddaughter of Henrietta Lacks.

Kimberley stressed a major point that Skloot’s book also did so extraordinarily well: for us to remember that her grandmother was a real woman who worked in the fields, cooked, danced, and wanted the world for her children like any other parent.

Kimberley then expressed the families gratitude for those who did just that, first and foremost thanking Rebecca Skloot for her ten-year journey with the family and scientists worldwide to bring the Henrietta Lacks story to the attention of all people, not just us in science and medicine.

Then, Kimberley said something I want all writers to know:

“Thanks to the media for bringing the story of Henrietta Lacks to the world.”

I joked with the writers and TV folks there as to when the last time was that they were expressly thanked for their work. But remember this, my journalism friends: you do make a difference. Because of this essential role you play in society, we just have to figure how to make the profession more financially viable for as many of you as possible in the new media landscape.

I had the distinct pleasure of being seated next to Attorney William Bryant Claiborne and his wife. Attorney Claiborne is a proud graduate of Virginia State University, a superb HBCU in Petersburg, and then earned a law degree at the University of Virginia. His colleagues thought he was out of his mind to come back to his rural home to practice but he reminded me that his home folk need legal services just as badly as those in Richmond and DC. Mr. Claiborne certainly walks that talk – also serving on the Halifax County Board of Supervisors. In this capacity, he presented the Lacks family (below) with a resolution honoring Henrietta Lacks, saying “we are so proud she lies in our county.”

Claiborne Halifax Co resolution 05.29.10 copyright David J Kroll

A rare experience for a scientist
While anxiously reflecting on the comments I was about to give, I recalled the fact that I felt embarrassed that my dissertation included nothing more about HeLa cells than the paragraph excerpted in this post, and certainly nothing about the woman from whom the cells were derived. Twenty years later, this is an even more glaring omission. So, I used the opportunity to thank the family for the gift of their matriarch. While I couldn’t change the past treatment of the family, I can play a part in moving forward and was therefore honored to be asked by Rebecca Skloot to serve with Dr. Pattillo on the board of The Henrietta Lacks Foundation to bring scholarship support to today’s young descendants. (Rebecca is donating a portion of book proceeds to the Foundation.)

And I didn’t even think about this until I was standing before the congregation – I told the family that I would be honored for them to sign my dissertation because this PhD work was as much theirs as mine.

I also had a few other things to say regarding the impact of HeLa cells on me personally and professionally and on other scientists and physicians around the world and how literally world-famous Henrietta Lacks is now. This gift of their matriarch, through her own suffering, has facilitated our efforts to relieve the suffering of literally millions of other people. The use of HeLa cells (and other cell lines overtaken by HeLa cells) led to the development of some drugs that treated my own mother who was stricken with a lymph node-positive breast cancer when I was a junior in college, stimulating me to become a cancer researcher and allowing her to now be a 26-year breast cancer survivor.

I was also sure to address the young people in the audience, family and otherwise, to encourage them in science and medicine and offered our them an open invitation to visit with us in our laboratories and classrooms in the Research Triangle area.

These words got some applause and a few Amens and “Praise Jesus!” – affirmations and feedback that we rarely get in the context of university auditoriums and seminar programs. Knowing more about the Black church since moving to the South makes these affirmations even more meaningful.

I do not yet have the writing skills to adequately express how moving this experience was for me to have the opportunity to face the family and express my gratitude that the life I have today – the wife, daughter, house, guitars – stems from a story of injustice across the decades. Because of today’s clinical guidelines for anonymizing human tissue specimens, we most often have no idea as to who exactly provided the biological research tools we use in the laboratory. But to be hugged by Sonny Lacks and literally and philosophically embraced by so many of the family is an experience I will never forget.

And now that several dozen members of the Lacks family have autographed and inscribed my dissertation, it somehow seems more complete.
Veronica Spencer inscription 05.29.10 copyright David J Kroll
Jackson inscription 05.29.10 copyright David J Kroll

Many of the family also put in their telephone numbers, quite ironic knowing how difficult it was for Rebecca to even get family members to return her phone calls for the first couple of years of her writing.

The guest speakers that followed were uniformly outstanding beginning with Rev. Kevin Chandler, president of the Halifax NAACP chapter. Rev. Ronnie Womack, mediator of the Banister Missionary Baptist Association, gave us some of the most motivating old-time preaching, stressing that the day was one for unification – implying, to me at least, that we were there to recognize that the gift of a Black woman has impacted the lives of all racial and ethnic groups – and “that when CNN rolls across the bottom of the screen that a cure for cancer has been found,” that Henrietta Lacks will be part of that story.

The highlight for many of us was when Dr. Roland Pattillo took the pulpit to humbly note his role in the day and the generosity of he and his wife in providing the gravestone for Henrietta Lacks together with the Morehouse School of Medicine. In noting that over 60,000 peer-reviewed publications have made use of HeLa cells, Pattillo told us that even today, another such paper is published at a rate of one every two hours. Dr. Pattillo is deserving of his own blog post and I look forward to telling more of his story.

At the other end of the spectrum was the next speaker, a remarkable young man, freshman congressman Rep. Tom Perriello (I can say that because he’s about a decade my junior). An undergrad and law graduate of Yale University, this native of Virginia’s 5th district reflected on his work in West Africa where polio continues to afflict millions despite the millions saved in Western nations thanks to the role HeLa cells played early in vaccine development. Perriello excerpted a resolution he read into the Congressional Record last Friday honoring Henrietta Lacks (“Honoring Henrietta Pleasant-Lacks” full text and PDF).

As a side note, I drove past many advertisements for his Republican opponent, Robert Hurt, that read, “HURT U.S. Congress.”

My immediate thoughts were, no thank you – you’ve hurt it enough already.

Perriello is an energetic politician who causes Republicans to froth because of his dedication to the military, international relations, workforce development, and establishment of faith-based aid groups while also putting forth such heresy and tyranny as affordable health care and asking his campaign workers to also “tithe” hours on community service projects unrelated to the election. His district runs from the North Carolina border to north of Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia, where his support is quite strong. I took it as a compliment that Rep. Perriello stopped me afterward to say I’d make a good politician – if it meant being like him, I would.

Reverend Alfred Chandler then closed with words that I think we can all do well to remember – that when we see someone in our community and feel an urge to pass judgment, bear in mind that we have no idea as to that person’s story.

Gravestone dedication
We were then off to the Lacks family cemetery on the property of the old home-house down Lacks Town Road, an absolutely beautiful stretch of rolling farmland. The photo below was taken looking south from the intersection of Mt. Laurel and Lacks Town Rd.
Mt Laurel and Lacks Town Rd 05.29.10 copyright David J Kroll
Elsie Lacks 05.29.10 copyright David J KrollAbout 100 people remained from the church service to dedicate the Henrietta Lacks gravestone just to the left of that of her mother, Eliza Pleasant. Another gravestone also being dedicated was that for Elsie Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter who died at age 15 at the Crownsville State Hospital, known then as The Hospital for the Negro Insane of Maryland. The story of Elsie and the visit there by Rebecca and Deborah Lacks has been cited by many as one of the most emotional parts of Skloot’s book.

Sonny and NPR Forester 05.29.10 copyright David J KrollWith all of the press attention, Sonny Lacks made it a point to introduce to all Mr. NPR “Butch” Forester, the groundskeeper who maintains the previously overgrown Lacks family cemetery in its now peaceful and reverent state.

I also had the chance to walk over to the home-house where Henrietta, her husband David, and children lived. It’s tougher to see now than in the winter due to the trees and undergrowth but you can get a better glimpse of it from the photos then at Rebecca Skloot’s website.

And before heading back on the road, the church and family had a nice repast dinner with fried chicken, green beans, potato salad, macaroni salad, meatballs, rice, and – nom! – chocolate cake.

Put simply, this was the single most moving day in my life as a scientist.


A roundup of press cover of the Henrietta Lacks headstone memorial dedication:

Lauren Compton and her videographer from WSET-TV in Lynchburg wrote this article and filed a segment from the station having only an hour to get back to the studio, thereby missing the repast. Beyond being a superb reporter, Ms. Compton did not have to refer to the songsheet to sing the words to the hymns.

I had a lovely time chatting with Denise Watson Batts of the Hampton Roads Virginian-Pilot who wrote “After 60 years of anonymity, Henrietta Lacks has a headstone.” Denise also had an excellent interview earlier this month in Baltimore with Sonny Lacks, eldest brother, Lawrence, and cousin Sadie Grinnan.

A superb writer, editor, and a fine gentleman, Tom McLaughlin, wrote this nicely detailed article for his South Boston News & Record. Although the press took numerous photographs at the services, only Tom put up a slideshow of 49 photos within that story. Tom and his mother, Sylvia O. McLaughlin, editor of the News & Record, are extremely proud of their newspaper and readers know that I am a huge fan of local news. The level of detail that local writers and publishers puts into such stories (or should) reminds us of the importance of sustained local reporting. I’m grateful to Tom and his Mom for sending me home with a few issues of their paper that covered Skloot’s book and the Lacks family stories. Tom’s own review of the book speaks from the viewpoint of a Southside Virginia native.

Tim Saunders from WDBJ-TV in Roanoke, Virginia, birthplace of Henrietta Lacks filed this article and video, “Halifax County community pays tribute to world famous native,” today.

A brief note appeared on June 1 on the website of Essence magazine.

Many thanks also go to Melissa Bell from The Washington Post and graduate of Northwestern University School of Journalism who patiently listened to my stories and whose work I look forward to reading.

I also want to publicly thank my lovely wife, PharmGirl, MD, and the illustrious PharmKid for understanding how much being away for this event meant to me. As always, I was on science time and a quick “couple of hours” trip took all of Saturday, a holiday weekend day we really needed to spend together after I’ve been out of town and away for other university events.

Virginia Williams: “If I were your daughter, I wouldn’t be here for this”

Younger readers and readers outside the southern United States may not completely grasp my preoccupation with the Jim Crow segregation era “sit-ins” over the last several months. These non-violent acts of civil disobedience in the 1950s and 60s challenged the “separate, but equal” provisions for public facilities that were upheld in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson US Supreme Court decision and continued more than a decade after the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Buses, trains, waiting terminals, restrooms, water fountains, and areas of private businesses were kept separate for whites and blacks (usually labeled as “colored” to ensure uniform discrimination against African Americans of mixed ancestry.). This US National Park Service website provides a sampling of such laws from various states.
The 50th anniversary of the most famous of these sit-ins in Greensboro, NC, has given the opportunity for today’s major news outlets to revisit these days and examine what has and hasn’t changed, especially in light of the election of the first black US president (who, incidentally, wrote this letter for the Greensboro News-Record a couple of weeks ago).
Virginia Williams cropped.jpgSo after writing last night’s post about Christine Hardman’s essay on the February 1960 visit to Durham by Martin Luther King, I was delighted to see this morning’s local fishwrapper celebrate Ms. Virginia Williams as “Tar Heel of the Week,” a weekly feature of the News & Observer that acknowledges individuals and their various contributions to the state. Ms. Williams is one of two surviving students from the earlier and increasingly-appreciated 1957 Royal Ice Cream sit-in in Durham, a story I wrote about in November when the sit-in site was dedicated as an historical landmark. (To the right is a photo I was honored to take with her on the day of the dedication.).

Continue reading