First Baptist's bell removed for trip to Smithsonian
Jean Gerst Stewart arrived to Williamsburg's First Baptist Church at 7:30 a.m. on Monday.
The church's historic bell was to be removed from the steeple later that morning for the first time in 60 years, and Stewart, a longtime church member, wanted to watch the entire process.
She watched the beloved bell, from the moment a large crane extracted it from the steeple, to the moment the doors shut on a white van that will transport the bell to Washington, D.C. next week.
There, on Sept. 24, the bell will ring at the dedication of the Smithsonian's new National Museum of African American History and Culture, attended by President Barack Obama.
"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."
Formed in 1776 among a group of enslaved and free blacks, First Baptist Church of Williamsburg is believed to be the first black Baptist church organized by African-Americans, for African-Americans.
The church bought the bell in 1886, but in the 1950s, structural issues silenced the bell.
Restored in partnership with Colonial Williamsburg, the bell rang once more in February when the church launched the Let Freedom Ring Challenge.
The challenge, inviting people to ring the bell for racial healing, drew more than 4,000 people throughout February.
On Monday morning, Colonial Williamsburg conservators worked to safely remove the 400-pound bell, coordinating with riggers and crane operators. They secured the bell and yoke to a custom-made wooden pallet and strapped it into a van.
"What's going through my mind is the fact that this bell has great significance," said the Rev. Reginald Davis, First Baptist pastor, as he surveyed the process.
Davis is happy to see the bell's significance play a part in the significance of the museum's opening next weekend – "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.
On Sept. 21, the bell journeys to Washington, D.C. Church trustee Al Montgomery said police will likely escort the bell's van the entire way.
Those expected to attend the museum's Sept. 24 dedication 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, according to the Washington Post.
"For us to be a part of modern history, as it develops and as it unfolds is just something that is just amazing," said church member Alvene Conyers.