Lawrence Lacks Sr. wasn’t just the last living son of Henrietta Lacks, the African American woman whose cancer cells gave rise to untold medical discoveries across the globe.

The man known as “Pop-Pop” and “Papa Lawrence” was the patriarch of the modern Lacks family, a racial trailblazer in his own right, a soldier, an entrepreneur and a church man, in addition to being a fierce defender of his mother’s legacy.

But pursuing recognition for his mother and her cells, which regenerated outside her body and were turned into the hugely consequential HeLa cell line, was perhaps his most important and longest mission. It encompassed the last six decades of his life, according to those who came to honor him Wednesday.

Lacks died Aug. 26 at age 88.

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He wanted the country to “deal with justice for his mother,” said Rev. Al Sharpton, who was invited to give a eulogy during a celebration of life for Lacks at Faith Christian Fellowship in Owings Mills.

“Every child, every man should look at him and say that that’s what we should be like,” said Sharpton during a brief statement to news media in the lobby as the service continued. “He fought not only for his family, not only for his grandchildren and his loved ones, he fought for all of us.”

Sharpton, the minister and social justice activist, said Lacks “held on through illness” to witness the settlement with the Massachusetts-based biotech company Thermo Fisher Scientific for profiting off the cells taken without her knowledge while Henrietta Lacks was a patient at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The settlement was announced Aug. 1, which would have been Henrietta Lacks’ 103rd birthday.

Sharpton came at the invitation of civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who represented the family in that lawsuit. Crump said the funeral was a “celebration of life, this celebration of legacy and this celebration of justice.”

Crump reiterated Wednesday the pursuit of other firms that benefited from the cell line would continue as a way to honor the memory of both Henrietta and Lawrence Lacks. Indeed, the family filed a second lawsuit against a biotech company shortly after the first settlement.

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Henrietta Lacks and David Lacks Sr. moved from Virginia to Turner Station on the border of Baltimore City to raise their young children, including Lawrence, though Henrietta died from her cancer in 1951 at age 31. That left Lawrence Lacks, who had returned from a stint as an Army medic, to help raise his younger siblings along with his wife, Bobbette Cooper.

Lawrence Lacks went on to work at Bethlehem Steel and then became an engineer for the Amtrak rail line. After he retired, he and Bobbette launched several businesses in their community, including an insurance agency, a confectionery store and a meat shop.

He loved to swim and travel and was known to volunteer at his church, Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church in Baltimore.

He outlived his siblings and Bobbette, and spent the last 63 years dedicated to Henrietta, seeking what he saw as rightful recognition, justice and ownership of the cell line that helped in the development of vaccines, fertility treatments and other medical breakthroughs.

In addition to the litigation, Lacks and other family members have been able to gain some of the attention to Henrietta they sought. In 2021, Congress passed the Henrietta Lacks Enhancing Cancer Research Act, which requires a study of how agencies address barriers to participating in federally funded cancer clinical trials by underrepresented groups and provide recommendations to address barriers.

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In 2021, Lacks accepted the World Health Organization Director-General’s award on behalf of his mother. A year later, Lacks became a WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Cervical Cancer Elimination.

U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, who represents sections of Baltimore City and Baltimore County, joined U.S. Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin in seeking to posthumously grant Henrietta Lacks a Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of her contributions to medicine.

Mfume, who spoke at the funeral, said he’s known the Lacks family since he was young and looked up to Lawrence Lacks.

“My role today is just simply to say goodbye to my friend,” said Mfume, who he said Lacks was full of “animation and kidding and jokes.”

The service was officiated by Rev. Samson Doolin, the senior pastor at Faith Christian Fellowship, and Dr. Franklin Lance, senior pastor of Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church, led a prayer of comfort and read Lacks’ obituary, according to a printed order of the service. Alfred Lacks Carter, Lawrence Lacks’ nephew; Ron Lacks, Lawrence Lacks’ son; and other family participated in the event.

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Lawrence Lacks is survived by six children, their spouses, and many grandchildren, great-grandchildren and family and friends, many who were also in attendance Wednesday.

Meredith Cohn is a health and medicine reporter for The Baltimore Banner, covering the latest research, public health developments and other news. She has been covering the beat in Baltimore for more than two decades.

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