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Common Reading Program Division of Academic Engagement and Student Achievement

WSU Common Reading Welcomes Lacks Family for Jan. 23 Discussion of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”

PULLMAN, Wash.—Washington State University’s Common Reading Program will host a moderated discussion with David “Sonny” Lacks and Jeri Lacks-Whye Wed. Jan. 23 at 7:30 p.m. in Beasley Coliseum. They are the son and granddaughter of the woman who is the subject of “This Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” this year’s Common Reading book for freshmen. Her cells have been used over the past 60-plus years in countless scientific pursuits worldwide.

The event marks the sixth annual Common Reading Invited Lecture for the popular program. It is free and open to the public. A book signing will follow on the Beasley Concourse.

“We are delighted to welcome the Lacks family to give a more personal insight into the life of Henrietta and her lasting impact,” says Karen Weathermon, co-director of the Common Reading Program. “The book, written and published by Rebecca Skloot in 2010, raises topics that have inspired countless discussions among students and faculty here at WSU, both in first-year classes and in programming beyond them. We are excited to learn more about her from her son and his daughter.”

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” describes how cells were taken without permission from the main character, who died at 31 of cervical cancer in Baltimore in 1951.  Those cells became the first immortal cell line when they reproduced successfully and rapidly in a laboratory at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Named “HeLa” cells—derived from the first two letters of her names—they continued to divide and multiply, and went on to be used in the development of vaccines, cloning, gene mapping, and in vitro fertilization, and were sent on space missions to test who cells react to zero gravity.

That HeLa cells came from Henrietta Lacks wasn’t made public until the 1970s. Her family was approached about giving their cells for research, which they did, also without their consent. They went on to discover that vials of Henrietta’s cells had become the first human biological materials ever bought and sold as part of a multi-billion-dollar industry. In her book, Skloot explores the family’s story. Some profits from the book go to a foundation to support families and victims of medical ethics violations. The Lacks family has never benefited from the commercialization of HeLa cells.

David “Sonny” Lacks has visited university campuses and libraries across the country talking to audiences about his mother’s important contributions to science. By sharing what it was like to find out about her immortal cells, he brings a personal touch to big issues such as medical experimentation on African Americans, bioethics, legal battles over informed consent and whether we control what comes from our bodies and control any profits. He provides a first-person perspective on the collision between ethics, race, and the commercialization of human tissue, and how the experience changed the Lacks family forever.

Jeri Lacks-Whye has traveled with her father on dozens of visits, adding her own perspective on the legacy of her grandmother, the family, and HeLa cells. She works for the judiciary system in Baltimore in the domestic violence unit. She is one of the Lacks family members who will be a consultant in the much-anticipated HBO movie produced by Oprah Winfrey and Allan Ball based on “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”

For additional information about the WSU Common Reading and the Lacks visit on Jan. 23, visit the website at

CONTACT: Karen Weathermon, Co-Director, WSU Common Reading Program, 509-335-5488,

MEDIA: Beverly Makhani, Director of Communications, University College at WSU, 509-335-6679, Makhani@wsu.edu1-10-13



WSU Global Campus Hosts Slave- and Slave-Trader Descendants Sharon Morgan and Tom DeWolf for Jan. 10 Presentation on the Legacy of Slavery and Racism

PULLMAN—Sharon Morgan is an African American woman living in Chicago’s South Side whose ancestors were slaves. Tom DeWolf is a white man living in rural Oregon with family roots in the largest slave-trading dynasty in U.S. history. They explored their common legacy of slavery over a three-year period, became friends, and wrote a book, “Gather at the Table.” On Jan. 10, they will visit Washington State University to share their story at a 7 p.m. presentation in the Smith Center for Undergraduate Education (CUE), room 203.

The public is invited to this free event which will include videos, readings, and audience participation. It is sponsored by the WSU Global Campus, which provides campus-style events to more than 3,000 WSU Online students around the world through its Global Connections program. []

The topics of the lecture tie to this year’s Common Reading book in use by WSU freshmen system wide, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” Students in Pullman are invited to attend the presentation in person.

The Gather at the Table project details experiences when the authors pursued “using genealogy as an undercurrent to come to terms with the history out of which racism evolved.” Morgan and DeWolf traveled through 27 states and abroad visiting ancestral towns, courthouses, cemeteries, plantations, sites of racial terror, antebellum mansions, and historic sites. They visited with each other’s families and engaged in deep conversations about how the lingering trauma of slavery and racism has shaped their lives.

Their shared “healing journey” is documented in their book which was published by Beacon Press in October 2012.

In 2001, DeWolf discovered that he was related to the most successful slave-trading family in U.S. history, responsible for transporting at least 10,000 Africans. His book, “Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History,” was published in 2008 by Beacon Press. It is his “memoir of the journey in which 10 family members retraced their ancestors’ steps” from their home in Bristol, Rhode Island, to slave forts on the coast of Ghana where DeWolf’s traded rum for African men, women, and children; and then to the ruins of a family plantation in Cuba where ships often left the slaves for sale and returned to Rhode Island carrying sugar and molasses to make rum. The family journey was filmed in the Emmy-nominated documentary “Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North.” It premiered nationally on the PBS series P.O.V. and was an “Official Selection of the Sundance Film Festival.”

Morgan is a marketing communications consultant, a nationally recognized pioneer in multicultural marketing, and a founder of the National Black Public Relations Society. She has lived in the Caribbean, Europe, and Africa, and for more than 25 years has researched her family history in Alabama’s Lowndes County and Mississippi’s Noxubee County. An avid genealogist, she blogs extensively, leads workshops on African American family history, and founded the website, devoted to helping “people appreciate and explore African American family history and culture.”

Her first book, “My Daddy is a Cool Dude,” was published in 1975 by The Dial Press and nominated for the Caldecott Medal for children’s literature. She also co-authored “Real Women Cook: Building Healthy Communities with Recipes that Stir the Soul.”

Both Morgan and DeWolf are members of Coming to the Table, an associate organization of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University; DeWolf serves on the board of Coming to the Table. It “provides leadership, resources, and a supportive environment for all who wish to acknowledge and heal wounds from racism that is rooted in the United States’ history of slavery,” according to the website at

Two additional guest events follow on the heels of the authors’ visit. At 7:30 p.m. Jan. 23, David “Sonny” Lacks and Jeri Lacks-Whye, the son and granddaughter of Henrietta Lacks, will be special guests for a moderated discussion on this year’s Common Reading book in Beasley Coliseum, followed by a book signing. It is hosted by the University College at WSU, in which the Common Reading is a program. More information is available online at

At 7 p.m. Feb. 6, Kevin Bales, co-founder of Free the Slaves and a consultant to the United Nations, will speak in the CUB Auditorium. His visit is sponsored by the WSU Global Campus.

All of the events are free and open to the public.

CONTACT: Charlie Snyder, Program Specialist, WSU Global Campus, 509-335-2433,

Karen Weathermon, Co-Director of the Common Reading Program in the University College at WSU, 509-335-5488,

MEDIA: Beverly Makhani, Director of Communications, University College at WSU, 509-335-6679,