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A string of high-profile religious leaders, politicians and social activists took the stage at First Baptist Church to preach the importance of racial equality and unity – a message that hit especially close to home for one particular family in the audience: the descendants of Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson is well-known for fathering children with both his wife, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, and one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. Descendants of both lines were invited to participate in the "Let Freedom Ring: A Call to Heal a Nation" program at the church Monday morning.
“Our family serves as a symbol of how far we’ve come as a country, and how far we have to go,” said Shannon Lanier, a six-time great-grandson of Jefferson and Hemings and author of Jefferson’s Children: The Story of one American Family.
Four of Lanier’s cousins were also in attendance at the "Let Freedom Ring" ceremony, which kicked off with opening remarks from the Rev. Dr. Reginald Davis of First Baptist Church and Mitchell B. Reiss, the president and CEO of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation – both of whom played an integral part in putting together both the "Let Freedom Ring" celebration and the subsequent challenge that will run for the month of February.
The partnership between First Baptist Church and Colonial Williamsburg, which goes back several decades, has most recently centered around the restoration of the historic church bell bought by the congregation in the late 19th century.
The bell fell silent in the 1950s due to structural issues within the church, and it was not until last year that conservationists and engineers from Colonial Williamsburg were brought in to try to restore it.
The ringing of the bell for the first time in over five decades was timed to coincide with the first day of Black History Month, and for the rest of February members of the general public are being challenged to sign up for a turn at ringing out the bell as a symbolic gesture in support of equality, justice and freedom.
The challenge has attracted national attention, and numerous high profile political leaders, activists and celebrities were in attendance Monday.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. was the event’s keynote speaker, and he used his time in the pulpit to reflect on the successes of the Civil Rights Movement as well as the injustices the African American community still faces.
“There’s a new South today made possible by the civil rights martyrs,” Jackson said. “But we were enslaved for longer than we have been free. … We learned to live apart and now we must learn to live together.”
Learning to live together is exactly what Jefferson’s descendants have done as they have located and gotten to know one another in recent decades. Many of the cousins present expressed hope that their family’s open and sensitive approach to discussing its own divisions can serve as an example to a country they see as fraught with racial tension.
“Divisions in our nation are becoming more and more evident,” said Jeff Westerinen, a five-time great-grandson of Jefferson and Hemings. “But for us [participating in] this has been a very, very healing time and we hope it is symbolic.”
Others among the Jefferson descendants also emphasized the importance of the ringing of the bell as not only a symbol of unity but also a reminder there is still work to be done.
“A bell calls us to action, to step up, to keep fighting and keep the struggle going,” said Prinny Anderson, a four-time great granddaughter of Thomas and Martha Jefferson. “As our famous ancestor said, all men are created equal – but we aren’t making all the progress on that we should be. This calls us in a very deep way.”