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Roanoke City Council votes to rename Lee Plaza for Henrietta Lacks and freedom
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Roanoke City Council votes to rename Lee Plaza for Henrietta Lacks and freedom

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Lee Plaza, the public space beside the Noel C. Taylor Municipal Building with colorful plantings and war memorials, will be renamed, the Roanoke City Council decided Monday.

The west half, where a man deliberately pulled down a marker recognizing Robert E. Lee last summer, will be renamed for Henrietta Lacks. Lacks, a Roanoke native who passed away in 1951, is the source of the first immortal human cell line — an extraordinary research platform on which major medical advances occurred.

The east half of the plaza location with the flag-bordered Roanoke Valley War Memorial and monuments bearing the names of war dead, will become Freedom Plaza.

No time frame was released as to when the new names might be in place. Next steps include fashioning signs. Those who say recognition of Lacks is long overdue support bringing in a bust or statue of her.

Lee Plaza has been called Lee Plaza since 1957. The council at that time named the plaza in honor of the Confederate general. A 10-foot Lee marker was added in 1960.

Last summer, police found the marker down and in pieces after the council began a process to remove the monument through city action. A man is awaiting trial on a criminal monument destruction charge.

After the Lee monument was damaged and removed, the council began efforts to rename the plaza. It sought advice from Roanoke’s Equity and Empowerment Advisory Board, which on Monday referred two suggestions the committee said were widely popular in the community: Henrietta Lacks Plaza and Star City Plaza. The Star City name didn’t make the council’s cut, but Freedom Plaza, submitted by Councilman Bill Bestpitch, did.

Mayor Sherman Lea favored naming the whole plaza after Lacks, noting her singular place in medical history. “The cells were different. They were special. They could reproduce outside the body,” he said.

Numerous organizations and individuals across the country maintain tributes to Lacks, who is the subject of books, exhibits, a movie, a Wikipedia page and a charitable foundation. Roanoke, where she lived until she was 4, does not honor Lacks with any kind of public display.

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