Historic bell will ring for 'justice' at opening of new African American History Museum

In 1863, when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation declaring all slaves in slave-holding states free, church bells rang as news of the declaration spread.

More than 150 years later, another freedom bell will ring as the nation’s first black president assists with opening the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture on Sept. 24.

The bell, nicknamed the "Freedom Bell"  was installed in the 1880s at the First Baptist Church in Williamsburg, Va., and was recently restored after falling into disrepair. The Freedom Bell was transported to Washington, D.C., earlier this week, alongside members of the congregation, for the opening ceremonies on the National Mall.

When the Smithsonian approached the church about using the bell, Rev. Reginald Davis said the church was elated to learn that instead of cutting a ribbon, President Obama would ring the church's bell.

“This will signify healing for us, justice for us, and recognition as a people of our humanity,” said Davis, who has led the congregation at First Baptist since 2004.

The church, which is credited as the first Baptist church established entirely by African Americans, began officially organizing in 1776. Before that time, the slave congregation would meet in brush arbors to sing their hymns and say their prayers.

The same year that the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence, a white landowner from the Cole family offered the slaves use of his carriage house. The congregation was officially organized under the Baptist denomination five years later.

In 1886, the bell was purchased and was placed in the church, where it hung and later was moved when the church relocated to another part of the city.

“Over time it fell into disrepair and went unrung for decades,” Davis said. “It didn’t even ring during the Civil Rights Movement.”

The crisp ring of the bell was heard again for the first time in February, when the church began its “Let Freedom Ring” campaign.

The church challenged people in the community and around the nation to sign up, via www.letfreedomringchallenge.org, to come and ring the bell during Black History Month. Davis said nearly seven million people signed up to virtually ring the bell, and thousands rang the bell in person and have the opportunity to do so again in October.

He notes that the bell would likely have sat collecting dust, if it wasn’t for the help of Colonial Williamsburg in 2015.

The restoration of the bell was partly funded by Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, and had to be finished in time for Black History Month.

It took two or three months to restore the bell to working condition, according to Colonial Williamsburg Director of Conservation David Blanchfield.

While refurbishing the bell, Blanchfield said they learned a lot about its origin.

“At the time it was called a schoolhouse build and was bought from Cincinnati,” he said.  “Being a schoolhouse bell, there are likely some old schoolhouses in the Midwest that still have them.”

Blanchfield notes that it was not lost on the conservationists how important this restoration was to First Baptist.  “This bell has a lot of meaning, especially to the patrons of First Baptist,” he said. “It goes back a long way, but it is an intrinsic part of this early African-American church.”

Davis said when the bell returns to First Baptist next week, the work of the congregation will be far from over.

He hopes the opening of the museum and the ringing of the Freedom Bell will further the church's dream of reversing the “divisions that are tearing our country apart.”

“Abraham Lincoln said we cannot survive half slaves and half free; the division has to be bridged,” he said.  “Our effort is to bridge this divide, hoping to bring racial healing to this country and get things back on track, where we can all claim we are one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Follow @MaryBowerman on Twitter.

Contributing: Jessica Estepa


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