Black people have always had a complicated relationship with patriotism in the United States. And few events spark the same emotion and topic of patriotism like the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2021.

The attacks ended the lives of nearly 3,000 people — around 270 of whom were Black — and remain the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil to date.

But we must remember

I was in the third grade on September 11, 2001. And while our publisher Glenn Burkins has a theory I might have been “a little too young to really remember,” I do. I remember the day so vividly that I can even conjure the same emotions I had in those moments. It was a normal morning at Merry Oaks Elementary School, and Mrs. McCullough was near the front of the room, teaching something. I can’t remember what, but I do know another teacher burst into the room through a connecting door and got her attention.

Mrs. McCullough, who was usually pretty even-toned, was noticeably alarmed. Their exchange is a little blurry in my memory, but I know that another teacher was in the background, panicking. Her daughter or son — or someone she loved — worked in a building in New York City…that a plane had crashed into.

Then, one of the teachers was on the phone. “Turn on the news,” she said.

In those days, each classroom had a big-back TV on a wheeled cart. Someone, though I don’t remember who, wheeled out the cart and turned on the news. I can remember most students scooting their chairs toward the screen.

Not very long after, a second plane entered the frame of the screen and crashed into the neighboring tower. One kid laughed; he didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know what was happening. None of us did.

But we knew something was wrong.

I remember looking at Mrs. McCullough for an answer, but for the first time in two years — she had been my second-grade teacher too — she didn’t know what to say.

Sensing the adults’ panic, some kids started to cry.

This is where my memory ends.

I don’t know what happened next. I don’t know how I got home that day. Did school end early? Did my mom pick me up? While I’m not sure of those details, I can look back and feel the same sense of confusion and helplessness that engulfed the room.

Today, when I think about September 11th, far beyond Mrs. McCullough’s third-grade class, I often think of many stories I didn’t hear growing up — the ones of the people who look like me.

I’ve watched many documentaries about the victims, survivors and heroes of the day, but many of the stories, like much of American history, excluded the experiences of Black people on that day.

Here are a few people I’m thinking about most today.

Wanda Anita Green and CeeCee Ross Lyles were flight attendants on United Flight 93. Lyles phoned her husband during the hijacking. Her husband later said that they prayed together before she told him to tell their children she loved them, saying: “We’re getting ready to do it now. It’s happening.” The “it” was an attempt by the passengers to regain control of the plane after terrorists had taken over the cockpit. Minutes later, the plane crashed in an open field in Pennsylvania. Lyles, Green and other passengers are credited with saving countless lives by helping to prevent it from reaching the hijackers’ target in Washington, D.C.

Asia Cottom and Rodney Dickens were both young students on American Airlines Flight 77. Cottom, a sixth-grade student, was headed to California with her teacher, Sara Clark, for a National Geographic Society conference Cottom had been chosen to attend. Dickens was flying with his elementary school teacher. Not long after takeoff, hijackers took the lives of everyone on board when they crashed the plane into the Pentagon.

A dozen Black firefighters — Gerard Baptiste, Vernon Cherry, Tarel Coleman, Andre Fletcher, Keith Glascoe, Ronnie Henderson, William Henry, Karl Joseph, Keithroy Maynard, Vernon Richard, Shawn Powell, and Leon Smith Jr. — gave their lives in service of rescuing others at the Twin Towers that day.

I’m choosing to remember the flight attendants for my sister, Che, who is a flight attendant and takes the same risks every day.

I honor the students for everything they could have been, but were not allowed to become.

And I remember the fallen firefighters for my father-in-law, John, a retired firefighter, who risked his life in service of others for many years.

Who are you thinking of today? I’d love to hear your — or their — story. You can share it with me at

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  1. I’m a veteran and was a no traditional student at JCSU. I had just gotten to work and went into the break room to get my ice and water. One man was standing in front of the TV, the first tower was in flames. I stood at the cooler wandering what was happening and then from the right side of the screen a plane was making a U turn and careening towards the other tower. I was dumbfounded. I shot to my desk called my husband something was going on in NY and he was trying to tell me about the Pentagon being attacked. I said, “I’m going home.” As I gathered my belongings our office VP was emerging to tell us something. I didn’t stick around to hear it. I knew they’d eventually let everyone go and I didn’t want to be caught in the traffic.
    I thought of our son, he was in Basic Training. Though I wanted to hear his voice I knew he was protected.
    I couldn’t believe we had been “snucked” on our territory but I thought of countless times we had done it so…??‍♀️

  2. I will never forget that day. I had just arrived a work and gotten a cup of coffee. I had turned my computer on, and several co-workers had arrived. We were engaged in idle chatter when someone said that a plane had struck the World Trade Center. We began watching CNN. It was assumed that the plane had malfunctioned and accidentally struck the building. I could not take my eyes off the screen. We were still watching when the second plane struck. That is when everyone realized it was no accident. At first, I felt only shocked. We listened as it was determined there were other planes that were involved and the grounding of all air traffic. I was working in Atlanta and wondered if the Atlanta airport could become a target. Fear quickly crept in. I thought about my daughter who was in third grade at the time. I wondered if I should pick her up. Her school was more than 25 miles from my job. I imagined becoming separated from her by panicked Atlanta traffic. I called her school, and they assured me that everything was okay and that students were calm and safe. My co-workers and I continued to watch the news until the first building collapsed. I saw people running and dazed through the streets of New York. I wondered if friends and family members who lived in New York were alright. About that time, I had seen more than enough to convince me to pick up my daughter and head home. For the next several days, I watched over and over the planes crashing into those buildings. I still remember one particular black woman, covered from head to toe in white ashes as the left the scene. She seemed so dazed and lost.