Colonial Williamsburg, First Baptist Church Celebrate Long History with ‘Let Freedom Ring’

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The First Baptist Church bell will ring out for the first time in over half a century in February in celebration of Black History Month.

The “Let Freedom Ring” programming, from colonial Williamsburg and First Baptist Church, slated for Black History Month calls on locals and visitors to the Historic Triangle to each take a turn at ringing the bell and reflecting on the meaning of freedom and equality.

Participants can sign up for a time any day in February to go to the church and ring the bell, and several high-profile individuals – such as Russell Simmons, Aretha Franklin and members of the Congressional Black Caucus – are expected to join in.

The church, which is among the country’s oldest African American houses of worship, was founded in secret by a group enslaved men and women in 1776.

“When we look back at that time, the slaves were worshiping at Bruton Parish, but they were required to be in the balcony,” said the Rev. Dr. Reginald F. Davis, First Baptist Church’s current pastor. “The slaves couldn’t express how they wanted to worship God in that setting. Context dictated content.”

Davis does not miss the irony of the church’s covert founding in the same year the colonies declared their independence from England. While white and black patriots alike fought for the cause of freedom from oppression, they did not share in the victory equally, and African Americans would remain enslaved for almost a century longer.

During the intervening years, members of First Baptist – then called African Baptist Church – found a series of different buildings in which to house their church.

James Cole, a white landowner, offered the congregation the use of his carriage house early in the church’s history, which represented a significant upgrade over their original meeting place: under thatched arbors in a forest.

From there, the church eventually moved to Raccoon Chase – an area along Jamestown Road across from Lake Matoaka – and later to a building on Nassau Street. This last move was facilitated by Colonial Williamsburg, and it marked the beginning of a warm relationship between the two entities.

“The church itself and Colonial Williamsburg have a long and old relationship,” said Ronald Hurst, the foundation’s Carlisle Humelsine chief curator and vice president of collections, conservation and museums.

While at the Nassau Street location, the women’s auxiliary at First Baptist endeavored to procure a bell for the church. The bell, which was founded in Ohio and made of cast steel, was purchased in 1886.

For several decades the bell rung out to announce the goings-on of the church, from Sunday services to weddings to funerals.

“A bell is a call to worship, a clarion call for a number of events [the church] hosted,” Davis said.

So it was, until the church moved to its current location on Scotland Street. Several architectural and mechanical issues colluded to silence the bell, and it remained silent all through the Civil Rights era and into the 21st century.

Chief among the problems with the bell was a break in the yoke from which it was suspended, Hurst said. The bell was also positioned too high in the steeple of the new church, which presented two separate issues: the sound was muffled due to the bell’s lack of proximity to openings in the tower, and the bell was not readily accessible for ringing and regular cleaning and maintenance.

“There was absolutely no way to get to it, to do any sort of regular maintenance,” Hurst said.

While the church attracted high-profile civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks during the latter part of the 20th century, the bell remained silent and was all but forgotten until a chance conversation between a member of the congregation and an employee at Colonial Williamsburg brought about renewed interest in the idea of putting the bell in working order once again.

“We were looking at the disturbing events happening in our nation recently, and thinking about how the bell could be a symbol of hope, faith, freedom and justice,” Davis said. “We need to start ringing this bell again, and get as many people as we can to ring the bell – to let freedom ring and to transform this into a more perfect union.”

Last spring the church and Colonial Williamsburg began discussing the bell project in earnest, and in the fall a team of conservators began working on restoring the bell.

Over the past several months, the team has fixed the yoke, cleaned the bell and added a special coating to protect it from future erosion, Hurst said.

“It’s been a wonderful opportunity to reach out and solidify and enhance our relationship with the church and other members of the community,” Hurst said.

The restored First Baptist Church bell. (Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)
The restored First Baptist Church bell. (Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

The bell has now returned to the church, positioned lower in the steeple so it remains easily accessible, and it will serve as the cornerstone of Colonial Williamsburg’s “Let Freedom Ring” Black History Month programming.

Nathaniel Brown, a member of First Baptist who also helps with the church’s media relations, believes the “Let Freedom Ring” program will help unite people across different races, faiths and age groups to come together and be a part of the lessons of history in a tangible way. He also thinks it is a valuable service to the congregation of church itself.

“The people of this congregation get a sense of their history from the work surrounding this bell,” Brown said. “Visibility is dear to them because they are excited to share their history, and their hope for the future.”

As much as the bell represents the past, Davis and Brown also think it is a symbol of the future. Much like it was originally intended to serve as a call to worship for the church, the bell is now being seen as a call to action for the community and the nation.

“We want people to come and ring the bell and look how far we’ve come and make a commitment to go even further,” Davis said.

Both Colonial Williamsburg and members of First Baptist Church are hopeful initiatives like Let Freedom Ring will not only promote the values of freedom but also attract more African America visitors to the area and make them feel more included in the history presented here.

“Under Dr. Reiss’ leadership, it seems [Colonial Williamsburg] is more willing to talk about the issue [of race],” Brown said. “We’re hoping our relationship with Colonial Williamsburg will continue and they will continue to be open to presenting our story.”

“The more you learn about [black] history, the more you learn how we were really connected,” Davis said. “Black history and American history are the same thing, and this is an opportunity to say we are one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all – and we need to start acting like it.”