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After decades of silence, the sound of freedom and faith will ring out once again from the bell of First Baptist Church, one of the nation’s oldest African American houses of worship.
The church, which was secretly founded in 1776 by a group of enslaved men and women, will celebrate its 240th anniversary in 2016. It is believed to be the first black Baptist church organized entirely by African Americans.
Though the church had a humble start, holding meetings under thatched arbors in the forest, by the outset of the Civil War the congregation had officially moved into a brick church building in downtown Williamsburg.
Shortly after they moved into the new building, members of the church acquired a bell. Though the bell called members to worship for several years in the late 19th century, it has been inoperable since the Jim Crow era.
All through the years of segregation and the struggle for civil rights the bell remained silent, though the church’s storied history attracted high-profile visitors like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, which has played a major role in building the church at its current site, is now endeavoring to put the bell back in working order in honor of Black History Month.
A team of engineers and conservators from Colonial Williamsburg are currently on site at the church, working to restore it by February. Their task includes determining the age and provenance of the bell, as well as the mechanics necessary to make it ring again.
Once restored, “Americans of every color, faith, and creed” will have the chance to ring the bell throughout each day of Black History Month, according to a statement from Colonial Williamsburg Foundation president and CEO Mitchell B. Reiss.
Colonial Williamsburg, in partnership with the Ford Foundation of New York, is sponsoring the “Let Freedom Ring” challenge, during which members of the general public can sign up for a time on any day during Black History Month to ring the bell.
In addition to restoring the bell and promoting the ringing of it throughout all of February, Colonial Williamsburg is also observing Black History Month with a range of special programs.
The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum will host a new exhibition, “A Century of African-American Quilts,” and topical lectures and theatrical presentations will take place throughout the historic area.
First Baptist Church itself will play host to special concerts, film festivals and church services. An interpreter from Colonial Williamsburg will also portray the first pastor of First Baptist Church, the Rev. Gowan Pamphlet, in programs at the church and other locations in the historic area.
“Bells call people to faith. They send folks forth to do good work in the world,” said Reginald F. Davis, current pastor of First Baptist Church. “A silent bell represents unfinished work of freedom and equality. This bell, in this sacred and historic church, will be silent no more.”
To sign up for a time to ring the bell, click here.