First Baptist Church looks to extend African American history beyond February

Staff writer

First Baptist Church and William and Mary came together in song, prayer and celebration to kick off the church’s “beyond february” initiative Sunday morning.

The event is a campaign to incorporate African-American history into the wider history of the United States and a break with the idea of confining the history and achievements of black Americans to a single month.

“It is time to integrate black history with American history,” said Connie Harshaw, president of the church’s Let Freedom Ring Foundation, in front of packed pews inside the church. “Twenty-eight days in February is not going to heal the divide in this country.”

Let Freedom Ring is dedicated to preservation of the historic church’s building and historic artifacts that date to the 18th century. The foundation also celebrated its one-year anniversary this month.

Harshaw called for greater communication between people of different races and a need to cast American history as a shared experiences among the peoples who make up the United States as a way toward a more just society.

Harshaw said the initiative is a continuation of historic efforts made to recognize black history. The project finds its start in “Negro History Week,” a precursor to African-American History Month founded by scholar Carter Woodson in 1926.

“We have a lot of problems in our nation. We’re still trying to make sure we practice a full democracy,” said church pastor Reginald Davis.

Davis led the morning’s worship service, and reflected on unity, perseverance and the challenges faced by African Americans.

“There’s nothing we can do about the past. We can’t go back and correct history, but as we continue to make history we can ensure we get in line with the kingdom of God,” he said.

The service included a sermon by Isaiah Thomas, a 2016 William and Mary graduate who is a pastoral intern at a Richmond church and is studying at Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. Thomas spoke to the need to persevere in spite of life’s challenges. The service also featured the choir EMA Live and a praise dance by Neonna Ferebee and Rochelle Evans.

Members of the William and Mary community — including students and alumni — crowded alongside congregants. At the end of the service, college president Katherine Rowe led students and alumni in ringing the church’s Freedom Bell.

The Freedom Bell is a bell the church has had since 1886. The bell fell into disrepair in the mid-20th century, but it was restored by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in 2016.

“We are so glad to be here with you. We are so glad William and Mary is so deeply connected to you,” Rowe said. “I feel a lot of confidence in the work we have to do together.”

The venue was fitting for such an occasion of reconciliation. The church is believed to be the first in the country to be founded entirely by African Americans and the church is designated a National Historic Landmark. The church’s first members, enslaved African American men and women, worshiped together in secret in 1776.

“William and Mary and First Baptist have a lot in common. Both are centuries-old institutions and both are committed to telling their story in a full and meaningful way,” said Jody Allen, a William and Mary professor and director of the “The Lemon Project, a Journey of Reconciliation.”

The project studies the college’s history as a slave-holding institution and proponent of Jim Crow. Allen is also on the Let Freedom Ring Foundation’s board of directors.

“So while Black History Month 2019 is coming to an end, our work, the work of First Baptist Church and William and Mary, is ongoing,” she said.

Jack Jacobs, 757-298-6007, jojacobs@vagazette.com, @jajacobs_

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