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The sound of a church bell ringing at one time was a call to faith or a means to get information out.
Church bells rang out as freed African-Americans celebrated the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, according to the Smithsonian Institution.
And while symbolically prominent in the African-American community, Connie Matthews Harshay, president of the Let Freedom Ring Foundation, said the message of resounding “freedom” that the bell emulates is understood across many cultures.
On Sunday, Holocaust survivors Frank Shatz and Erika Fabian will ring the Freedom Bell at The Historic First Baptist Church in Williamsburg to mark 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz.
“When we think about the Freedom Bell, freedom means the same thing to us, it feels the same way even though we are two different and distinct cultures who have different experiences in this country. The one thing that’s common is the sound and the feel of freedom,” Harshay said.
Established in 1776 and at a time when it was unlawful for African-Americans to assemble, free blacks and slaves secretly founded the First Baptist Church in Williamsburg with the help of “Mr. Cole” who Harshay said was a white townsman who offered his carriage house for black people to gather so long as it was for religious purposes.
A group of women from the church bought the bell in 1886, according to the website but it had sat in silence for more than 50 years until 2016 when it was refurbished by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in honor of the church’s 240th anniversary.
The bell’s resurgence was also just in time for it to be transported to Washington, D.C. where President Barack Obama rang it, rather than cutting a ribbon, for the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture that same year.
And since then, more than 9,000 people have requested to come to the church to ring the Freedom Bell, Harshay said.
The Let Freedom Ring Foundation is a nonprofit with a mission to preserve the historic church and its artifacts but also to educate the public on the church’s “diverse and longstanding history.”
Harshay said the organization is in the process of filming a mini-documentary with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation which she said they hope will resonate with children who’ll be able to “learn about American history, the whole story” early on.
“We work hard to make sure that people understand that black history is American history,” she said.
Doors open for service at The Historic First Baptist Church, 727 W. Scotland St., Sunday at 11 a.m. when Harshay said Shatz and Fabian will ring the Freedom Bell and Henry Hart, William & Mary professor and poet laureate of Virginia, is reading a poem he wrote for the occasion.