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A bell that was silent for decades inside a Williamsburg steeple will now ring before the nation.
On Saturday, Sept. 24, the historic First Baptist bell will ring during the dedication of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall, according to a press release from Colonial Williamsburg.
The bell belongs to the First Baptist Church, which is among the country’s oldest African American houses of worship. It was founded in secret by a group enslaved men and women in 1776, the same year the colonies declared their independence from England. The bell was purchased for the church from an Ohio foundry in 1886.
“Our congregation was formed secretly in a plantation wood by our brothers and sisters – enslaved and free – who sought simply to worship as they wished, just as our new nation asserted citizens’ unalienable rights,” First Baptist Church Pastor Rev. Dr. Reginald F. Davis said in the release. “Their courage and our unwavering faith have sustained the First Baptist Church since 1776 through war, segregation and the ongoing struggle for equality.”
“Just last year we set out to restore our long-silent bell so that it might ring out during our 240th year in a call to the nation for healing and justice,” Davis said. “That it will ring on such a day in the presence of our nation’s first African-American president, is a glorious advent that we could not have shared in our prayers or imagined in our wildest dreams.”
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.
“For this bell to ring at this moment in history closes an arc in fitting, even poetic fashion. Both our institutions are honored and gratified by the Freedom Bell’s role in this momentous event,” Colonial Williamsburg President and CEO Mitchell B. Reiss said in the release.
According to a Smithsonian press release, President Barack Obama and the first lady Michelle Obama will be in attendance at the ceremony, joined by former President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, Congressman John Lewis, Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton and the museum’s founding director, Lonnie Bunch. The President will deliver remarks during the ceremony.
The occasion will be marked by readings of African American literature and musical performances, including a performance by jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, who created a special composition for the event, the release stated.
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.
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, even as the church’s storied history attracted high-profile visitors like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.
Thanks to a partnership with Colonial Williamsburg, the bell has now been restored to working order. After its brief trip to D.C., the bell will return to the First Baptist Church for a 240th anniversary on October 16.
“For 90 years Colonial Williamsburg has interpreted history, but together with First Baptist Church we’ve made history,” said Colonial Williamsburg President and CEO Mitchell B. Reiss. “First Baptist’s is a crucial American story that parallels our entire nation’s. The Freedom Bell embodies both our shared history and our nation’s founding values as we work toward ‘a more perfect union.’”