Henrietta Lacks was born Loretta Pleasant in Roanoke, Virginia in1920—no one knows when she became "Henrietta."
When her mother died in 1924, her father took the family back to his hometown of Clover so that various relatives could help him raise his 10 children. The kids were divvied up and sent to different relatives' homes.
Henrietta ended up with her grandfather, Tommy Lacks, living in an old slave shack on a tobacco plantation with her older cousin David "Day" Lacks. They called it the "home-house."
She and her cousins spent their youth taking care of farm animals and tending the tobacco fields. They grew up extremely poor, but their grandparents took care of them.
Henrietta would sometimes go to the tobacco market to sell the crop with her grandfather. It was a treat for her and the cousins to get out of town.
At the market, the division between races was clear: white farmers got to sleep in private rooms and black farmers had to stay in the basement of the warehouse with the animals.
When they returned to Clover, they'd bring back some cheese or bologna for the cousins who didn't get to go.
In their spare time, Henrietta and cousins would pull tobacco for white farmers to make enough money to see their favorite movies at the local theater.
Meanwhile, Henrietta was growing into a beautiful young woman. Pretty soon, her cousin Day and another cousin, "Crazy Joe" got into it over Henrietta.
Joe and Henrietta had some dates, but she ultimately jilted him. Joe tried to kill himself by jumping though the ice in a lake.
But soon, Henrietta, who'd been sharing a bedroom with Day this whole time, found herself pregnant with his child. She was just fourteen-years-old when she gave birth to Lawrence.
Henrietta had a daughter, Elsie, four years later. But Elsie was affected by Henrietta's syphilis and has epilepsy. She also can't communicate, and people in Clover call her "touched."
Henrietta and Day married when she was twenty. Her sister Gladys didn't approve of the match—she felt that Day wasn't good enough for Henrietta.
Crazy Joe tried to kill himself again, this time with a knife.
At the end of that year (1941), Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and the United States geared up for war. Steel factories in the U.S. had work for everyone, including black citizens willing to risk their health.
Henrietta's cousins Cliff and Fred had gone north to Sparrows Point to work at Bethlehem Steel. They lived in Turner Station, a community of workers twenty miles from Baltimore.
Cliff and Fred urged Day and Henrietta to follow them as a way out of the extreme poverty of tobacco farming. So they did.
Day went ahead to establish things. Then Fred was drafted, so he gave all his money to Day so that he could bring Henrietta and their children to Maryland.