I Lost My Mother In 9/11 - Her Black Life Still Matters

Photo by Paula Edgar (far right) with her mother, Joan Donna Griffith (center) and sister in Griffith's office at the WTC.
Paula Edgar lost her mother, Joan Donna Griffith, in the South Tower of the World Trade Center. Fifteen years later, she talks to ESSENCE about the whitewashing of 9/11 coverage, how the tragic event strengthened her relationship with law enforcement and how she’s coping today.

Sunday marks 15 years since a series of terrorist attacks on the east coast caused the collapse of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. On that day in 2001, Paula Edgar lost her mother, Joan Donna Griffith, in the South Tower - the first tower to collapse following the plane crashes. 

Though Edgar lost so much that day, 15 years later, she is remarkably able to reflect on things she gained. 

“My mother didn’t have the opportunity to live her life and fulfill the dreams that she had,” says Edgar, who has since devoted her life to honoring her mother’s legacy by becoming a change agent in the legal profession.

Griffith was an assistant vice president and office manager at Fiduciary Trust where she worked on the 97th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. A devoted, hard-working American, who had also been in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing – another terrorist attack years prior – Griffith commuted two hours to work each and every morning from New Jersey. 

Speaking exclusively with ESSENCE over the phone, Edgar shares her testimony of the day of the attacks.

“The day it happened it was very jarring because I was 3,000 miles away from home; I was living in California,” said Edgar, who was born and raised in Brooklyn, but had moved to California in 1997. “Being so far away and knowing that everything was happening, and my family was being impacted was really hard to deal with. I felt like I couldn’t reach out and touch them.”

“Phone lines were down and the only real connection that you’d had was through the television,” Edgar recalls. “I had gotten this sixty inch television two days before so, literally, I saw the towers fall really crisp and really clearly first thing in the morning on that Tuesday.”

Following the 9/11 attacks and the loss of her mother, Edgar became inspired to pursue a major career change, transitioning into law in order to help others and make a difference in many lives. The tragic event strengthened her relationship and respect of law enforcement.

“It really made me have to focus and switch my trajectory and think about what I had and had not been doing,” explains Edgar. “When you realize that life is short - through whatever means - it either kicks you into gear or it kicks you into hiding; and for me, it was kicking me into gear.”

“I really took it on as, ‘Look, my mother’s not here anymore; I have to live her legacy.’ I have to make the world better because she’s not here to see it, and she expected the effort and energy she put into me, to be impactful.”

Edgar, who is the new president of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association (MBBA) – the largest association of African-American and minority lawyers in New York City – says her life, career and leadership role was catalyzed by her mother’s death. The MBBA works with the New York community, in all five boroughs, focusing on matters of domestic violence and police brutality and reform. 

“I honor and appreciate the sacrifice of police and firemen; I was cognizant of that, as were all New Yorkers and Americans generally when 9/11 happened. I am lucky enough to continue to have that connection because whenever I go to events or visit Ground Zero on Sept. 11, I get to see the people who made the sacrifice and I’m able to honor that,” says Edgar.

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“I think the relations between police and the African American community, specifically, has been harmed because of bad policing - so not because of police generally, but because of police officers who abuse their roles, or let their biases or their lack of respect for lives, enable them to harm or kill folks who haven’t had the chance [for due process].

As president of the MBBA, Edgar is committed to strengthening relations between NYPD and the African-American community and has even begun setting the foundation for implementing action initiatives. She shares her story as a reminder that Black Lives Matter. 

“I think the fact that you don’t hear the stories of Black and brown victims and their families of 9/11 as much, is indicative of the continuity of people not adding value to Black lives,” Edgar asserts. “On the one hand, if you’re not a celebrity or a sports figure, then your story is not told; on the other if you’re not a criminal, then your story is not told,” says Edgar. “That’s the same thing that’s been reflected in how 9/11 coverage has been white-washed.”

And she’s right. Fifteen years later, looking back at 2001 coverage of the 9/11 heroes and victims and families of victims, one would deduct that 9/11 only happened to white Americans; that only white Americans were affected by the devastation and loss that the attacks left in its wake. 

“For me as an African-American, and as a child of someone who was in the towers, it’s extremely important for me to let the world know who was lost, who was murdered. There’s individual impact in each of the people who were lost,” she said.

Edgar not only memorializes the life of her mother through her career, but also through her own experiences as a mother. She tells ESSENCE how she has been able to introduce such a significantly marked tragedy in American history to her daughter, TJ, 11, and her son, Austin, 4.

“I show them pictures [of my mother]; I encourage my father to talk to my daughter, because she’s older and can understand a little bit more about my mother,” says Edgar. “She’s been able to interact with my sister and my aunts so she knows my mother’s legacy.” And Edgar plans on doing the same with her son once he is older.

“Sunday I’ll be taking my daughter to the 9/11 museum; we’ll both be going for the first time. We’ve been to the memorial but not to the museum itself,” explains Edgar. “I’m going to be taking her because she’s old enough to comprehend tragedy, even though it’s personal to her and important to the history of New York.”

Edgar adds, “But most importantly, the way I teach my children about my mother, is by being their mother.” 

Paula T. Edgar Esq. is founder and principal of PGE LLC, a consulting firm that specializes in professional development, coaching, social media strategy, and diversity and inclusion. A civic leader and President of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association, she received her B.A. in Anthropology from the California State University Fullerton and her J.D. from CUNY School of Law. Connect with Paula on Twitter @Paulaedgar and at www.paulaedgar.com

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