September 8, 2016
Historic Freedom Bell Makes Final Journey to Ring at Opening of the National Museum of African American History and CultureTrip coincides with the 240th anniversary of the historic First Baptist Church – established in the year of the nation’s founding – which heard the restored bell toll for the first time since segregation
The Freedom Bell of the city’s historic First Baptist Church, which tolled this year for the first time since segregation, will make a final journey to Washington, D.C. and ring at the dedication of the National Museum of African American History and Culture attended by President Barack Obama on Sept. 24.
“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,” said First Baptist Church Pastor Rev. Dr. Reginald F. Davis. “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.”
First Baptist Church is believed to be the first black Baptist church organized entirely by African Americans, for African Americans. Acquired by the congregation in 1886, the Freedom Bell was installed above the church’s current sanctuary during its construction in 1956, but soon fell silent due to architectural and mechanical deficiencies. In 2015, under the guidance of a Colonial Williamsburg conservation and operations team, the bell was restored and the church belfry and vestibule renovated so that it could ring anew.
The Let Freedom Ring Challenge called on the nation to visit the historic church during Black History Month in February 2016 and ring the bell for justice, peace and racial healing. Relatives descended from Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings – an enslaved African-American woman whom Jefferson owned – were the first members of the public to ring the bell Feb. 1 following a service featuring the Rev. Jesse Jackson and other luminaries. More than 4,000 people would follow them that month, and the Freedom Bell remains available for visitors to ring.
“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.’”
“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,” Reiss said.
The Freedom Bell will complete its final journey and return to First Baptist Church before Oct. 16 observances of the congregation’s 240th anniversary.
Additional information on the Freedom Bell and its journey will be made available at LetFreedomRingChallenge.org and by visiting Colonial Williamsburg on Facebook and @colonialwmsburg on Twitter and Instagram. Information on the National Museum of African American History and Culture and its opening is available at nmaahc.si.edu.
The Let Freedom Ring challenge was made possible in part by a generous grant from the Ford Foundation of New York.