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Historically Black University Cancels Sen. John Cornyn’s Speech After Outcry

A Houston university has canceled an upcoming commencement speech by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), days after protesters booed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos at another historically black university’s graduation. More than 800 people signed a petition to protest Texas Southern University’s decision to invite Cornyn, the Senate’s second-ranking Republican, to speak at its Saturday commencement ceremony. On Friday, the Houston Chronicle reported that the speech was off.

“Every consideration is made to ensure that our student’s graduation day is a celebratory occasion and one they will remember positively for years to come,” the university said in a statement posted on Facebook. “We asked Senator Cornyn to instead visit with our students again at a future date in order to keep the focus on graduates and their families.”

Cornyn aides told the Chronicle that the senator “respects the Administration’s decision and looks forward to continuing to engage with the University in the future.”

Rebecca Trevino, the student who started the online petition, wrote that having Cornyn speak at TSU would be an insult to all historically black colleges and universities. The petition notes Cornyn’s support for DeVos and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, his voting record in favor of voter ID laws, his opposition to sanctuary cities, and his criticism of the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, after whom TSU’s law school is named.

This is our graduation,” Trevino wrote. “We have the right to decide if we want to refuse to sit and listen to the words of a politician who chooses to use his political power in ways that continually harm marginalized and oppressed people.”

A similar petition followed Bethune-Cookman University’s announcement that DeVos ― who has made controversial comments about HBCUs ― would be the commencement keynote speaker. Protesters say they gathered 50,000 signatures to stop the speech at the school in Daytona Beach, Florida.

DeVos ultimately gave the keynote address on Wednesday, but students in the audience turned their backs and repeatedly interrupted her with loud booing.

TSU did not immediately respond to a question about whether DeVos’ reception at Bethune-Cookman influenced TSU’s decision to cancel Cornyn’s speech.

According to TSU’s calendar, U.S. Reps. Al Green and Sheila Jackson Lee, both Texas Democrats, will give presentations at the school’s commencement.




White House: Trump fires FBI Director James Comey

President Donald Trump has fired FBI Director James Comey, according to the White House.

The president informed Comey of his termination a week after he generated national headlines with his dramatic testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Reports emerged on Tuesday that the FBI had found part of that testimony to be inaccurate.

In a letter sent on Tuesday, President Trump informed Comey, "While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigations" before stating that he agreed with the recommendations of both Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions to relieve the director of his post.

"I nevertheless concur with the judgement of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau," wrote Trump.

Comey may have been blindsided by his firing on Tuesday, according to reports that say FBI and Justice officials had no prior knowledge of Trump's bombshell announcement.

"Today, President Donald J. Trump informed FBI Director James Comey that he has been terminated and removed from office. President Trump acted based on the clear recommendations of both Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The FBI is one of our Nations most cherished and respected institutions and today will mark a new beginning for our crown jewel of law enforcement, said President Trump.


Norfolk student wins award at international robotics competition

Norfolk Academy junior Chai Hibbert won a prestigious award at an international robotics competition in St. Louis.

The FIRST Championship is an international event that brought in more than 15,000 students from 33 countries.

Hibbert, who has been on the Bulldogs Robotic Team for the past two years, was selected as one of 20 students who won the FIRST Dean’s List Award. She was one of five students in the state to compete for the award.

Hibbert competed at the FIRST Tech Challenge level, which requires teams to create the most complex robots.

“When they called my name, I almost felt numb as I walked across the stage,” Hibbert said. “After receiving the award, I felt so proud that I could represent my team at such a high level.”

Hibbert’s win marks a significant step for Norfolk Academy Robotics, which started in 2012.

Physics teacher and the team’s faculty advisor Robert Call says this year’s team had a lot of enthusiasm and drive.

“This year’s team did a fantastic job.  Their success was due in large part to our team leaders and Chai was an important member of that group,” Mr. Call said. “Chai was particularly good at handling the details that other people overlooked. She did a great job of looking at the broader scope of FIRST beyond being a robot-building competition.”

The school’s robotics team continues to grow. This year’s team had 21 students, but the school’s headmaster says the new engineering curriculium in the lower school may fuel more interest in the years ahead.

“We are delighted, of course, about this news and proud of Chai,” said Headmaster Dennis G. Manning. “Her extraordinary achievement comes in the context of  our increased emphasis on STEM education, the number of Ph.D’s on our faculty,  our robotics program, and our transformational new Lower School Engineering, Design, and Innovation initiative. These are national-caliber programs clearly bearing national-caliber results.”




Trump suggests financing for historically black colleges may be unconstitutional

In his signing statement, President Donald Trump outlines a range of provisions in the spending bill that he says would “unconstitutionally” limit his authority as commander in chief. President Donald Trump signaled Friday that he may not implement a 25-year-old federal program that helps historically black colleges finance construction projects on their campuses, suggesting that it may run afoul of the Constitution.

In a signing statement on the $1.1 trillion omnibus government spending bill, Trump singled out the Historically Black College and University Capital Financing Program as an example of provisions in the funding bill “that allocate benefits on the basis of race, ethnicity, and gender.”

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Trump said his administration would treat those programs “in a manner consistent with the requirement to afford equal protection of the law under the Due Process Clause of the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment.”’

Previous presidents, including Barack Obama and George W. Bush, often issued such statements when they signed legislation to signal they may ignore or disregard parts of laws passed by Congress.

In his first signing statement, Trump outlines a range of provisions in the spending bill that he says would “unconstitutionally” limit his authority as commander in chief — and indicates that where the bill conflicts with the White House’s interpretation of the president’s powers under the Constitution, he will go with the Constitution.

Neither the White House, nor the Education Department immediately responded to a request for comment.

Trump’s statement also suggests concern about programs listed under the “School Improvement Programs” section of the budget. Those include a wide range of education-related programs, such as after-school initiatives and programs that support Native Hawaiian and Alaska Native education.

Advocates for HBCUs and a legal expert said they were confused by the reference to the HBCU financing program.

Cheryl Smith, senior vice president of public policy and government affairs at the United Negro College Fund, also known as UNCF, which advocates for private HBCUs, said in a statement that the organization is “puzzled by this provision and seeking clarification from the White House as to its meaning.”

Smith noted that the federal designation of an institution as an HBCU is not based on race, but rather on mission, accreditation status and the year the institution was established.” She speculated that the “signing statement may simply be the Office of Management and Budget being overly cautious and perhaps not fully understanding this important distinction as it relates to HBCUs, but UNCF needs more information regarding their thinking and intent.”

Under the program, which was created by Congress in 1992, the Education Department provides federally-backed loans to historically black colleges and universities for the construction of buildings and other facilities. The bill provides $20 million in federal loan subsidies in fiscal year 2017 to support as much as $282 million worth of financing to the schools.

Derek W. Black, a law professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law who studies constitutional and education law, called Trump’s reference to the HBCU program “rather odd.”

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“If Congress is validly spending money on these programs, and there’s no court finding or litigation suggesting discrimination, the idea that the executive would unilaterally not allocate those funds would be a rather momentous position to take.” Black said.

Although Congress and the president have long tussled over war powers in signing statements, for example, Black said he thought it was “very unusual” that the statement alluded to apparent discrimination in education programs.

“The administration is basically putting us on notice that they think there might be a problem, and therefore they might have to exercise judgement in these programs,” he said.

He also said it was unusual that the statement referenced only “race, ethnicity and gender.”

“Why stop here?” he asked. “If you’re worried about the allocation of benefits in unfair ways, why not add other things like religion or disability?”





Who Was Henrietta Lacks? 5 Striking Facts About The ‘Mother Of Modern Medicine’

Hardly anyone knew of Henrietta Lacks’ life story prior to 2010. That year, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was released, and went on to become a New York Times best-seller. The biographical book told the story of a black woman born on a tobacco farm in Roanoke, Virginia, in 1920 who revolutionized medical research and saved the lives of millions, without ever knowing it. Now, a new film by the same name starring Oprah Winfrey aims to make her life and impact more widely known.

Who exactly was Henrietta Lacks? And why is she described as the “Mother of Medicine”? Here are five fascinating facts about Lacks to better understand who she was and how she changed the world forever.  


Henrietta Lacks changed medicine forever and this book, by Rebecca Skloot, highlighted how.

1. Henrietta Lacks died from a cancer whose cells also made her immortal.

In 1951, at the age of 31, Lacks visited Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital, which served black patients in segregated wards during the Jim Crow era, so doctors could find out what was causing pain in her lower stomach. It turned out there was a cancerous tumor that had grown at a terrifying rate on her cervix.

At the time, cervical cancer was prevalent among women and research samples were taken from those who were diagnosed with it. Richard Telinde, a doctor at Hopkins who led a research study on patients who tested positive, hoped to grow living samples from both normal and infected cells to better understand the cancer. He worked with his colleague Dr. George Gey, the head of tissue culture research at Hopkins, who was relentlessly determined to develop the first line of immortal human cells ― those that could repeatedly replicate themselves outside of the body without ever dying.

Soon after her first trip to the hospital, the excruciating pain Lacks felt began to worsen as her tumor grew, so she checked herself into Hopkins for immediate treatment through surgery. The doctor who performed the surgery then removed two dime-sized pieces of tissue from Lacks’ body ― one from the infected cervix, the other from a healthy part of the organ ― and had them handed off to Gey. He and his staff used Lacks’ samples to successfully grow the first line of immortal cells. Lacks eventually died from the cancer, leaving five young children. 

However, her cells lived on ― and soon came to be known as HeLa.

2. Lacks never knew doctors took her cells ― and neither did her family, for decades.

In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Skloot writes that while Lacks gave doctors permission to perform a surgical procedure on her, she “knew nothing about her cells growing in a laboratory.” The hospital had called Lacks’ husband, David, to tell him about her death and ask if they could do an autopsy on her. Her husband initially denied the request, but visited the hospital later that day to see Lacks’ body and eventually agreed to sign off on the autopsy because doctors said they wanted to conduct tests that may help their children, and he believed them.

Decades after Lacks’ death, Rolling Stone published a riveting piece in March 1976 that gave a detailed account of what happened to her cells and included comments from her husband. In the piece, he recounted his experience at the hospital after learning of her death and revealed that he had never explicitly been told by doctors or any official about what the samples had been used for:

“They said it wouldn’t disfigure her none, because it was all down in her womb, to begin with.” He nods. “They said it was the fastest growing cancer they’d ever known, and they was suppose to tell me about it, to let me know, but I never did hear.”

In the same interview, Lacks’ eldest son, Lawrence, told the reporter: “First we heard was about a month ago, a person called us on the phone and asked if we’d like to take a blood test. That’s the first time we heard about it.”

3. Her name was changed from Henrietta Lacks to Helen Lane.

Helen Lane had quickly become a pseudonym for Henrietta Lacks in print, which Skloot writes was apparently an intentional move made in an effort to disguise Lacks’ true identity from the public and the media. According to Skloot, one of Gey’s colleagues told her Gey himself had created the new name so the media wouldn’t discover who Lacks really was. The Minneapolis Star was the first to publish a report on Nov. 2, 1953, that more accurately identified Lacks, only the last name was incorrect: She was recognized as Henrietta Lakes.

Upon the release of the story, journalists dug in and began requesting interviews with Gey and other doctors central to the case, but they all were reluctant to release her real name at the risk of “getting into trouble,” according to the book. Skloot firmly concludes that had Lacks’ name been released to the public from the outset, it would have changed her family’s life forever.

“They would have learned that Henrietta’s cells were still alive, that they’d been taken, bought, sold and used in research without her knowledge or theirs,” she wrote.

4. HeLa cells have led to countless medical breakthroughs.

HeLa cells have entirely revolutionized medical research. The cell line can be found in labs across the world and has been used in studies that have resulted in countless breakthroughs.

The cells were used to develop the first polio vaccine in 1952 during a time when the disease swept the nation in an outbreak that left thousands of children paralyzed.

HeLa cells have also traveled to space to help scientists study the impact zero gravity has on human cells; been used to identify abnormalities in chromosomes; helped with research in the mapping of the human genome; and aided in studying the human papillomavirus, commonly known as HPV, which causes the cervical cancer that killed Lacks.

In 2014, chemists and engineers at Penn State University announced that in their study, HeLa cells had been implanted with technology that have potential to cure cancer if they are able to mechanically manipulate cells inside the body. 

5. Her family, while never given compensation, says her spirit continues to live on.

Both of Lacks’ daughters have died, including Deborah, who was hugely instrumental in bringing the book to life by working with Skloot and whom Oprah portrays in the film. But her legacy lives on through her three sons, who are now decades old. 

And it’s Lacks’ eldest son, Lawrence, reportedly the executor of her estate, who is leading the charge for the family to receive compensation from Johns Hopkins Hospital and others. However, the institute said in 2010 that it does not own the rights for the HeLa cell line and that they have not profited from the cells. Lawrence plans on continuing to pursue his mission. 

Before Deborah’s death in 2009, she told Skloot that even though she and her siblings lost their mother, Lacks always knew how to make her presence known. 

“Deborah believed Henrietta’s spirit lived on in her cells, controlling the life of anyone who crossed its path,” Skloot wrote. “Including me.” 

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” premieres on HBO on Saturday, April 22. 




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