Lost to History, Virginia Home of Henrietta Lacks Demolished | Virginia News
By JEFF STURGEON, The Roanoke Times
ROANOKE, Va. (AP) — An excavator’s claw no one in local history circles saw coming leveled a house that records say was once the home of Henrietta Lacks, the Roanoke-born woman described as the mother of modern medicine.
In a freakish stroke of bad timing, a local historian discovered the home standing vacant on a Hurt Park street, but city officials weren’t told of its significance in time to call off the demolition.
Code enforcement officials did not know Lacks had lived in the American Foursquare house on Norfolk Avenue, which had become unsafe, said Dan Webb, codes compliance administrator.
An excavator tore down the dwelling at 1102 Norfolk Ave. S.W., which was at least 95 years old, about four months before the start of the pandemic, The Roanoke Times found.
Nelson Harris, an author of history books, pastor and former mayor, said he found the home — never before associated with Lacks — by discovering her father’s name in local residential records. Harris said he might have mentioned it to a few friends in passing, “other history nerds like myself.”
“Just looked like an old home in need of some attention,” he said.
Webb said his office placarded the front door with a bright yellow sign that read, “THIS STRUCTURE IN UNSAFE” in about March 2018.
Below it officials tacked a copy of a letter to the owner, titled “NOTICE OF UNSAFE STRUCTURE,” he said.
Harris said he saw no such warning notice when he was there, nor did he see any sign that Roanoke had condemned the home.
One week after Harris first stopped by the house in September 2019, the city issued a building permit for its demolition, according to city records. Demolition followed in November.
The previously unknown episode involving the house has jolted members of a local campaign organizing memorial tributes to Lacks.
“It blows my mind that it was there up until a few years ago,” said Vice Mayor Trish White-Boyd, who was informed of the existence of the house and about its demolition in a Roanoke Times interview last month.
Lacks lived in Roanoke from birth in 1920 to 1924, spending most of her short life elsewhere. At age 31, while living in Maryland, she entered the hospital of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore for treatment of cervical cancer, during which time doctors removed some of her cancerous cells.
The first immortal cell line for medical research, valued by scientists worldwide to this day, was created with the cells from Lacks’ body. Due to their ability to divide endlessly in the laboratory, they provided an unparalleled platform for research, supported such breakthroughs as the development of the polio vaccine and made billions for industry. Lacks died that year.
It would have taken about $75,000 to save the house, an owner’s representative said. A recently announced fundraiser to place a statue of Lacks in downtown — where part of a plaza across from city hall was renamed in her honor last year — raised $18,000 in about the first month of its existence toward a goal of collecting $140,000.
The house did not stand in a local or national historic district; by law its demolition was assumed to have no negative impact on historical values, Webb said. Had an historic designation for that neighborhood been in place, a historic review would have occurred beforehand. However, such a review would have focused on historical significance from only an architectural standpoint. It would not have gotten into the historical importance of those who lived there, Webb said.
Given the city staff’s adherence to the rules, Webb said it would be up to the city council or city administration to grapple with whether the loss of Lacks’ former home requires any particular response from the city.
“Maybe, in the future, we should look a little bit further into some of these houses that we have to demolish,” Webb said.
Roanoke historian and school system employee Jordan Bell, who played no role in finding the house, insisted that Roanoke must embrace its history.
“Whenever I hear about something being torn down, I cringe,” Bell said. “That’s exactly the reason right there.”
Donald Shovely, associate minister at Jerusalem Baptist Church, said he knew nothing about Lacks having lived at the address, which is next door to the church. As was the case with Webb, Shovely knew who Henrietta Lacks was, however. But at no time in Shovely’s 64 years of attending Jerusalem Baptist did anybody mention Lacks lived that close as a child.
Had the community known of Lacks’ tie to the home, Shovely asserted, the owner could have collected enough money to save it. The property owner, members of the Ferrell family, “could have gotten the money free probably,” Shovely said.
For at least 10 years, historians and some local residents have known Lacks was born in the vicinity of Norfolk Avenue and 12th Street Southwest and that that house had been knocked down decades earlier. That came out in and after a 2010 book that broke the story of Lacks, her connection to Roanoke, the groundbreaking research performed with her “HeLa” cells and ethical issues raised by their use without her prior consent.
With publication of the book, Roanoke learned in one breath that a city native had standing in the global scientific community but that her birth home no longer remained. In fact, another home almost as important was standing, according to city directories and real estate records.
In her book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” author Rebecca Skloot didn’t mention a second family home a short distance away.
Harris’s discovery of the second family dwelling added little to Lack’s overall life story, as she would have lived there only about a year or so before her parents moved her to another city in 1924. But for a city wishing to memorialize her place in local history, the second house represented a new point of local interest with appreciable qualities that the first residence, now part of Perry Park, could not.
Harris decided he would mention the find to state officials responsible for approving historical markers. Now pending before state officials, a marker request Harris filed could receive approval later this year, he said.
Lacks was born Loretta Pleasant in Roanoke on Aug. 1, 1920, Skloot learned from her birth certificate. The Roanoke city directory by publisher Hill Directory Co. in Richmond said John Pleasants, the name provided for Henrietta’s father with an “s” on the end, lived at 28 12th St. SW in 1920. This Hurt Park address, assumed to be where Loretta Pleasant was born, was demolished in about 1970.
City directories of the era listed residences only by head of household. A person with a different name owned the 12th Street house, suggesting that the Pleasants rented.
However, it was surely a family home, as shown by the 1920 census, which said eight children lived there even before little Loretta came along in late summer, according to Harris. The family size information agrees with information living family members.
The recently demolished home sat about 350 feet to the southeast, also in Hurt Park.
John Pleasants bought 1102 Norfolk Ave. S.W. in 1919 and posted it as collateral in April 1922 to support a $3,000 loan from the Peoples Perpetual Loan and Building Association, according to records recorded in Roanoke Circuit Court. A 1936 Roanoke Times article described the association as a local “home-building enterprise” that loaned money to home builders.
By 1923 the Norfolk Avenue address had a dwelling on it and the Pleasants family lived there, according to that year’s city directory. The home where Lacks was believed to have been born, 28 12th St., was occupied by William Green, the city directory for 1923 said, suggesting the Pleasants had left.
Real estate records don’t give the purpose of the loan and it’s not possible to say for sure it was taken out to build the house. City records also say the recently demolished house was built in 1905, long before the Pleasants family lived in the neighborhood. In addition, while the city directory called the head of household Pleasants, the family called him Pleasant.
The city directory listed his wife as Eliza, which matches family-provided information.
One more point of confusion is that the directories of the 1920s listed 1102 Norfolk Ave. as 1100 Norfolk Ave. No one interviewed for this story knew the reason.
Henrietta Lacks’ family members say her mom died in 1924 in connection with giving birth at home, according to published accounts. Her death prompted her husband, who city directories said worked as a railroad brakeman, to relocate his youngest children to the homes of family members elsewhere. Lacks went to Clover near South Boston in Halifax County and is buried in that area. John Pleasants continued to appear in the annual city directory as the occupant of 1102 Norfolk Ave. through 1929.
Along the way, Loretta’s first name became Henrietta. Family members have told historians they don’t recall the reason. Her last name changed in marriage.
After Pleasants owned it, the Norfolk Avenue home changed hands in 1930, 1947, 1955, 1962, 1964, 1985 and 2009. Records identify the current owner as Mary Jean Ferrell and James Henry Ferrell, et al. Angelia Sanders of Roanoke, who identified Mary Jean Ferrell as her aunt, said in a recent interview that her aunt has never heard of Lacks. Nor had Sanders heard of her.
Peeling exterior paint, rotted wood siding and decayed porch columns had brought the home to the city’s attention. It needed a new roof, reconstruction of overhang extensions and chimney repair. The tax assessor’s office valued the home at $10,500 and the land, about one-sixth of an acre, about the same.
In March 2018, code enforcement officials sent Ferrell a Notice of Unsafe Structure — a copy of which was obtained by the Roanoke Times — in which the city condemned the house and ordered that no one could live there. It would have been at least 95 years old at the time and, Sanders said, vacant for about 20 years.
Knock it down or correct all violations, the city’s letter told Ferrell. State law empowers municipalities to eliminate public nuisances, which include dangerous buildings, in their boundaries. Ferrell and other family members figured they needed $70,000 to $80,000, her niece said.
Ferrell “was trying to save the house. We worked with her for a good while,” said Webb, the codes compliance administrator.
Funds did not materialize. Nineteen and a half months after the notice was first issued to Ferrell, the four-bedroom house fell.
“This was a fairly straightforward demolition. The house was unsafe and in imminent danger of collapse,” Webb said.
In early January, Harris went out to check again on 1102 Norfolk Ave. — his first time out there since 2019. The lot was vacant.
“I thought, what? What?” Harris said. “I literally drove around the block saying, ‘I know this house is here, I know this house is here.’ Then, ‘no, it’s not.’ “
“It is kind of sad that the two homes in which the family lived are no longer around, given her legacy and the fact that now as a city we’re trying to do something to recognize and honor that. But it is what it is at this point,” Harris said.
Tax officials have yet to subtract the value of the house from the assessed value of Ferrell’s property. Such an action would reduce the total value of the land-only parcel to $9,800.
Ferrell has been billed for the demolition, which cost more than $20,000. Adding in fees, costs and late-payment penalties, she owes $34,824, according to the Roanoke treasurer’s office. Plus interest until paid.
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