“Henrietta Lacks is not a human interest piece. Henrietta Lacks is a life. A life that matters,” said Sue Zschoche, associate professor of history, at the K-State Book Network’s event “Speaking the Silences: Women and Race in Kansas History.”
The event took place Monday in the Hemisphere Room of Hale Library. Zschoche, along with M.J. Morgan, assistant professor of history and Chapman Center Research Director, and Katie Goerl, graduate student in history, presented to a standing-room-only audience about the importance of history, both on the broad and individual levels.
“When people say they hate history, the problem is that they haven’t been shown everything,” Zschoche said. “History is everything, including the thoughts and actions of individuals.”
“Speaking the Silences” was planned and hosted by the K-State Book Network as the third and final event relating to the freshman reading selection, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” The novel was supplied to all freshmen at the beginning of the year, with accompanying events held to enhance the understanding of the reading. The purpose of the presentation was to broaden the knowledge of stories like Lacks’ and localize them to Kansas.
“I think it helps to realize that things like this happen everywhere,” said Tara Coleman, co-director of the K-State Book Network. “Today was about the importance of investigating history.”
Morgan and the students in her class complete research projects relating to historical places and individuals in Kansas, particularly the history of towns that no longer exist. Morgan displayed some of her students’ findings during her presentation.
“We have this little window to the world,” Morgan said. “The projects that our undergraduates do give us insight that might have been lost.”
Henrietta Lacks was a poor African-American woman living in Virginia in the 1940s. Her cells, which reproduced at an astounding rate, were cultivated for scientific research without her knowledge or consent. Those cells, termed HeLa cells, which are still in use today, are said to be immortal because they are still capable of self-replicating. Zschoche said that Lacks is immortal in a different way.
“Henrietta Lacks is immortal in the way that so many people in the world are immortal, in that she did the best should could to provide for her children so they could live to tell the tale,” Zschoche said.
Stories in history like Lacks’ are what Morgan finds most interesting.
“You can’t get these details by going through piles of secondary sources,” Morgan said. “You get them by talking to people.”
Morgan advises her students to travel and interview people in order to get the most informed account of historical events.
“What we’re doing is getting students to think historically. They get the information by going to places and interviewing,” Morgan said.
This is exactly what Goerl did for her research project, which she conducted as an undergraduate intern last semester with the Chapman Center for Rural Studies and presented at the event. Goerl did research on early 20th-century one-room schoolteachers and students, both by contacting interviews of students and by driving to Alma, Kan., to analyze letters written by former students and teachers. Her research brings stories to light that, like Lacks’, may have been otherwise forgotten.
“My project works against the idyllic image of the one-room schoolhouse,” Goerl said. “One-room schoolteachers were very literally on their own, with help from administrators being miles away.”
Goerl found that conditions for one-room schoolteachers in that time were very difficult. Female teachers had little power to defend against the bullying antics of their students, and their policies and conduct were regulated by both community and the school board. This perspective of one-room schoolteachers was often only held by the teachers themselves.
“The people who are left out of history are usually the ones powerless to have a voice,” Morgan said.
Students who attended the event found much to be gained from learning about the “everything” of history, rather than from traditional history taught in public schools, which emphasizes the history of wars and diplomacy.
“I thought the presentation was well put-together,” said Sam Hustak, freshman in biology. “I feel like we wouldn’t be where we are now without history and the analysis of history.”
Other students felt that history depended on who you were taught by.
“My teacher gave me all of that information,” said Shannon Thomas, freshman in elementary education. “I definitely think I was taught more than just about wars. I think it depends on who your teachers are.”
Morgan said that she loves to be the kind of teacher that does give the extra information.
“I love it. I love seeing the fruition at the end of a project,” Morgan said.
At the end of the presentation, it was the hopes of Morgan and Zschoche that students left with an appreciation of the lesser-told stories of history. Students seemed to gain exactly that.
“I think the study was cool,” said Kristin Palmer, freshman in elementary education, referring to Goerl’s research. “I liked the details of her presentation.”
The K-State Book Network also gave students in attendance information on how to give input on the book to be chosen for next year’s freshmen read. Students can go to k-state.edu/ksbn/2013.html to vote on a book for next year.
As far as this year’s presentation, Morgan left the audience with a message.
“We must be moral custodians of our past,” Morgan said.