“’Like I’m always telling my brothers, if you gonna go into history, you can’t do it with a hate attitude. You got to remember, times was different.’” (Immortal Life, p. 276) Henrietta’s daughter Deborah Lacks, said this with tears in her eyes, as she and writer Rebecca Skloot left the Crownsville Hospital Center. In the 1940s and 1950s, Crownsville was known as the Hospital for the Negro Insane, where Deborah’s sister Elsie had been institutionalized.
As a historian who specializes in twentieth-century southern and African American history, I was struck by Deborah’s comment. She reminds us that even though the events in Immortal Life happened in the recent past – just a little over 60 years ago – even that past was in many ways fundamentally different from our present. The modern civil rights movement of the 1960s toppled legalized segregation and expanded the definitions of freedom and equality for all Americans. As a result, the kind of discrimination that Henrietta and Elsie endured because of their race, socio-economic class, gender, and mental capabilities is no longer acceptable today, and at times it’s hard to believe they happened at all.
But they did happen, and Deborah and her brothers lived with the various ways the past can intrude on the present. As the southern author William Faulkner said in his 1950 novel Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” As children, Deborah and her brothers never truly understood why or how their mother died. Denied a stable home life, they also didn’t have access to quality education, jobs, or health care; this led to some family members engaging in violence and crime. No wonder they didn’t want to talk about the past or couldn’t help but feel hateful about what happened. We must admire Deborah for her insight about letting go of the hate, but uncovering the past was still a deeply unsettling and physically destructive experience for her.
Students protest school closings in downtown Farmville, 1963
In reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, I can’t help but think of how the past continues to influence the present here in Farmville and Prince Edward County. Prince Edward County was the site of one of the five cases that comprised the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which declared segregation in public education unconstitutional. In response to a 1959 federal court order to desegregate, the Prince Edward County government chose not to fund the public schools, effectively closing them. It took another five years, until 1964, for the Supreme Court to order their reopening. In that time, over 2000 children were denied access to public schools. Many parents found ways to provide their children with education during the court challenge, but many did not. Ironically, Prince Edward County Schools were desegregated earlier than many other school districts in Virginia, but it was the only place in the nation to close its schools for as long as it did. We continue to struggle with the legacy of the school closings – as the high illiteracy and poverty rates in our county reveal. Many don’t want to talk about this past, and many continue to struggle with the emotional burden of being denied an education and never really understanding why it happened.
Recognizing the fundamental difference between the past and our present, while also being sensitive to the ways in which the past still resonates in people’s everyday lives – these are habits of thought that are not only essential to being a good historian, but even more importantly, to being an educated citizen. These are habits of thought we try to encourage here among our students at Longwood.