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Colonial Williamsburg is kicking off its unprecedented lineup of Black History Month programming on Monday with the “Let Freedom Ring: A Call to Heal a Nation” ceremony at First Baptist Church.
The church, founded in 1776 and one of the oldest African American houses of worship in the country, came into possession of a church bell in the late 19th century. Though the bell rang out several times a week for many decades, serving as a clarion call to the church’s membership, it fell silent in the 1950s due to structural issues.
With the church celebrating its 240th anniversary this year, attention has recently been turned back to the bell and what it once symbolized for the church community. Thanks to a partnership with Colonial Williamsburg, the bell has now been restored to working order and is being prepared to ring out for the first time in decades this coming week.
The story of First Baptist Church and its historic church bell has attracted the attention of numerous political leaders, celebrities and activists, many of whom will journey to Williamsburg for Monday’s celebration of the bell’s full restoration and the church’s message of survival and growth for the African American community.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large Suzan Johnson Cook and descendants of Rosa Parks, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings will be among those taking part in the first ringing of the bell after decades of silence.
Other high-profile participants include Hampton University President Dr. William Harvey, civil rights leader Dr. Bernard Lafayette, and artists and social activists Danny Glover, Dionne Warwick and Esperanza Spalding.
After opening remarks from First Baptist Church’s pastor Rev. Dr. Reginald Davis and comments from Rev. Jesse Jackson, Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook and AARP CEO and Colonial Williamsburg Trustee Jo Ann Jenkins, a performance from award winning vocalist Valeria Simpson accompanied by the Hampton University Choir will take place.
After the ceremony, more than 300 participants – including many of the aforementioned celebrities, activists and political leaders – will take a turn at ringing the bell.
In addition to the many celebrity participants taking part in the ceremony, Yoko Ona and Malcolm-Jamal Warner are among those slated appear in a national broadcast and digital public service announcement campaign about the Let Freedom Ring Challenge, which is a call to action for all Americans to take a turn at ringing the bell throughout Black History Month.
“The First Baptist Church and its bell encapsulate the complex and at times tragic history of race relations in America,” said Mitchell B. Reiss, President and CEO of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. “The bell’s restoration not only demonstrates our recognition of the past, it also symbolizes our determination to continue the march toward justice and the ‘more perfect union’ envisioned by the Founding Fathers on these very streets. We are excited to present these special events as part of our effort to honor Black History, and to galvanize Americans of all backgrounds to ring for progress and the nation’s healing.”
Members of the public are invited to watch a free live feed of Monday’s ceremony, which will take place from 10 to 11:30 a.m., at the Kimball Theatre.
Individuals and groups interested in taking part in the Let Freedom Ring Challenge can sign up now for a time to ring the bell; slots are available on the hour from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday or 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday throughout the month of February.