First Baptist's bell removed from steeple for trip to Washington, D.C.

hbridges@vagazette.com

John Williams remembers growing up in Jackson, Miss., during the days of segregation, riding in the backs of buses and elevators, living in separate neighborhoods and graduating from a black high school.

“We have come a long way,” said Williams, a trustee of Williamsburg’s First Baptist Church.  

First Baptist has come even further, founded in 1776 among a group of slaves and free blacks who sought freedom to worship and gathered secretly in the woods of Green Spring Plantation.

A few steps away from Williams, the church’s historic bell rested on a wooden pallet in front of the white van that would be transport it to Washington, D.C.

There, on Sept. 24, the bell will ring at the dedication of the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture, which President Barack Obama is expected to attend.

A beloved bell that, for First Baptist, has come to symbolize history, healing and hope, will gain a national audience.

“I think our ancestors would not be surprised ...,” said Alvene Conyers, church secretary. “They had such foresight and such tenacity, such determination. And they were so proud of who they were.”

Jean Gerst Stewart arrived at First Baptist early Monday morning. A longtime church member, she wanted to watch the bell’s removal — from the moment a large crane extracted it from the steeple, to the moment the doors on the white panel van shut.

Stewart waved goodbye to the bell as the van drove away.

“To see the bell go to Washington is … overwhelming,” said Stewart, who grew up attending the church.

“It’s just so close to our hearts. So close. But we’re going to share it,” she said. “But we love it. We love our bell, because it is our history.”

First Baptist is believed to be the first black Baptist church organized by African Americans, for African Americans. The church acquired the bell in 1886.

Colonial Williamsburg first partnered with First Baptist in 2015, restoring the bell to ringing condition in time for the church’s 240th anniversary year and the Let Freedom Ring Challenge launched in February.

On Monday morning, a team of Colonial Williamsburg conservators and operations staff worked to safely disassemble and remove the bell, coordinating with riggers and crane operators. They secured the bell to a custom-made wooden pallet and placed it in the van.

“The only thing we were curious about is that we don’t know how much the bell weighs,” David Blanchfield, Colonial Williamsburg’s director of conservation, said following the removal.

The team later determined the bell and yoke to weigh a combined 400 pounds.

While the bell is out of the church, conservator of objects Tina Gessler will conduct minor maintenance. Gessler said most of the work will focus on the bell’s wooden wheel, which allows the bell to be rung. 

Church trustee Al Montgomery said the bell journeys to Washington, D.C. on Sept. 21, likely escorted by Williamsburg Police to city limits and by state police the rest of the way.

Those expected to attend the museum’s dedication on Sept. 24 include president Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, as well as former president George W. Bush and Laura Bush, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton, The Washington Post reported.

The museum’s website states: “The historic significance of the newest and 19th Smithsonian museum — and its importance to all Americans — will make it an unprecedented local, national and international event unlike any other opening of a cultural institution in America or globally in recent memory.” 

For the Rev. Reginald Davis, First Baptist pastor, the bell’s involvement in the museum’s opening ties past to present.

“Tying in our history, the American history, the museum and the first African-American president – I don’t think you can get any better than that,” he said Monday.

The bell returns to the steeple on Sept. 26 carrying new meaning.

“For us to be a part of modern history, as it develops and as it unfolds, is just something that is just amazing,” Conyers said. “Just amazing.” 

Bridges can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342.

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