Up from Ground Zero

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Elizabeth "Queen Ann" Burnett, Operating Engineer

Twenty years ago the lives of nearly 3,000 were taken when four commercial airliners were hijacked and used as terrorist weapons. In the months following the September 11th attack, the ruins of the World Trade Center, known as Ground Zero, remained a painful scar in the heart of New York. Elizabeth Burnett’s “Up from Ground Zero” collection is one of the latest donations to the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), which honors the thousands of round-the-clock construction workers who helped the country heal.

Objects in the collection include Welder and Operating Engineer Burnett’s yellow construction worker hard hat, work-site identification badges, a block of glass from the towers, and a shadow box recreation of the work site at Ground Zero. These artifacts serve as important reminders of the long, arduous reclamation of the World Trade Center and the American struggle to rebuild after a grievous loss.

Elizabeth "Queen Ann" Burnett shares her collection during the January 2020 Save Our African American Treasures event with Museum Staff 

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Leah Jones

Career in Construction

A member of the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE), Burnett worked as an operating engineer maintaining and operating the heavy equipment used in the clean-up efforts. Growing up, Burnett was drawn to the construction trades and became a dock builder at the age of 18. Despite racial and gender discrimination she landed an apprenticeship with the IUOE Local 15 in 1993 and began working all over New York City and New Jersey as an operating engineer.

Ground Zero Two Days After World Trade Terror Attack

Rescue workers sift through the wreckage of the World Trade Center on September 13, 2001 in New York City, two days after the twin towers were destroyed by two hijacked passenger jets.

Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Ground Zero

Burnett began working in Ground Zero shortly after the World Trade Center collapsed.  For nearly a year, she worked 12, 24, and, even, 36-hour shifts helping to remove 1.6 million tons of construction materials, and human remains, from the site. She’s one of the many women and men working on the clean-up site who suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In an effort to cope, she converted the back of her SUV to an art studio and began handcrafting her unique shadow box artworks. 

The Collection

Artifacts from Burnett in the NMAAHC collection serve as important reminders of the sacrifices of the thousands of round-the-clock construction workers who helped America to rebuild after a grievous loss.

When I was a child, I could spend endless hours creating. It was my way of envisioning a life better than I had. My first shadow boxes were made out of old shoeboxes and cutouts from Ebony and Jet. Years later, as an operating engineer, I found myself in the middle of one of the world’s greatest tragedies, the World Trade Center attacks … I took myself back into my childhood and began re-creating boxes.

Elizabeth Burnett