The events of September 11, 2001, left an indelible mark on the hearts of all New Yorkers. For those who lost family members and friends, the pain remains devastating even after 22 years. However, it is important to acknowledge that not all heroes received equal recognition, and the sacrifices of Black firefighters that day often went unnoticed by the mainstream media.
Capt. Paul Washington, a former president of the Vulcan Society, emphasized in a New York Amsterdam News article, “As an agency of New York City, FDNY was devastated. We lost 343 good men that day. Brave men. I knew dozens of them personally. I miss them all.” Regrettably, the tragic events of September 11th also highlighted the enduring presence of racism in our country, a factor that doesn’t seem to take a break. Consequently, it came as no surprise that the 12 Black firefighters who made the ultimate sacrifice that day did not receive equitable recognition compared to their white counterparts. Their absence from mainstream media coverage was strikingly disproportionate to their numbers.
An early and glaring example of the disregard for Black lives in this tragedy was exemplified by then Mayor Rudy Giuliani who appeared on a highly anticipated episode of “Saturday Night Live” alongside more than two dozen first responders, primarily New York City firefighters, all in uniform. Shockingly, not a single one of them was Black. In a time when diversity should have been celebrated, the absence of racial diversity was conspicuous.
Roughly 3,000 people were killed during the devastating terrorist attacks that unfolded on September 11th. Four commercial planes were hijacked, with two of those crashing into the iconic Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and a third plane striking the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The aftermath of this tragic day left almost 10,000 people injured but alive, thanks in part to the incredible bravery and selflessness of 343 firefighters who rushed to respond to the attacks. Among these heroes were 12 members of the New York City Fire Department (FDNY)’s Black Vulcan Society, an organization forged in 1940 to combat the discrimination faced within the department. These fallen Black firefighters, including names like Gerard Baptiste, Vernon Cherry, and Tarel Coleman, among others, made the ultimate sacrifice in their courageous response to the catastrophe. Capt. Paul Washington, former Vulcan Society president, recounted that the majority of these firefighters were inside or in close proximity to the Twin Towers when they tragically collapsed.
This oversight raises questions about whether the lack of representation was accidental. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once remarked, “The vast majority of white Americans are racist, either consciously or unconsciously.” Whether it was conscious or unconscious bias, the outcome was the same: the sacrifice and suffering of Black heroes received less recognition than that of their white counterparts.
Capt. Washington reminds us that while racism persists, the Black community has always been there for one another in times of adversity. The Vulcan Society received an outpouring of support from their community after 9/11, a testament to the strength and unity of the Black community.
Today, as we reflect on the events of 9/11, let us not forget the pain that so many New Yorkers endured then and continue to experience today. Let us remember all those who perished that day, including the Black firefighters who sacrificed their lives. It is a somber reminder that even in moments of tragedy, the struggle for equality and recognition persists. The sacrifice and courage of all heroes, regardless of their race, should be acknowledged, and we must continue to work towards a world where every life is valued equally.