First Baptist's bell to ring at National Museum of African American History and Culture's opening

hbridges@vagazette.com

More than 4,000 people passed through Williamsburg's First Baptist Church in February to ring its restored bell, a bell silent since the days of segregation.

At month's end, church members promised the Freedom Bell would not stop ringing.

It hasn't stopped. And 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.

“Seems like the bell’s got a life of its own,” said Bobby Braxton, chairman of First Baptist’s board of trustees.

Just weeks after the Smithsonian reached out with the opportunity, the bell will begin its journey to Washington, D.C. starting Monday, with removal from the steeple for the first time in 60 years. Colonial Williamsburg will provide support in the bell’s removal, transportation and reinstallation, said spokesperson Joe Straw. 

“Hopefully, this bell will remind America of our sacred heritage, and that we have to make our creed and our deeds match,” said the Rev. Reginald Davis, First Baptist pastor.

Formed in 1776 among a group of enslaved and free blacks, the congregation originally met secretly under a thatched arbor in the woods of Green Spring Plantation.

First Baptist Church remains one of the oldest African-American congregations in the nation, and is believed to be the first black Baptist church organized entirely by African-Americans, for African-Americans, according to a release from Colonial Williamsburg.

The bell, bought by the church in 1886, fell silent in the 1950s due to structural issues.

Colonial Williamsburg partnered with the church in 2015 to restore the bell and, in February, to launch the Let Freedom Ring Challenge, inviting people to ring the bell as a call to racial healing. Among those to ring the bell include the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

“It’s beyond everybody’s wildest dreams what has happened. And it’s still happening,” Braxton said.

As the Smithsonian Institution’s 19th museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture is the only national museum exclusively dedicated to African-American history.

Those to attend the dedication ceremony 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.

Davis sees a unique connection between the church’s history and the present moment: the first African-American president present at the opening of an unprecedented African-American museum

“I’m just elated that our bell has been selected to participate in the opening ceremony of the (National Museum of African American History and Culture),” he said. “I just see the connection between our history, our present and, hopefully, we can have a better future.”

Though logistics are not confirmed, Davis hopes to attend the ceremony, and Braxton said the bell will be accompanied by a church trustee.

“The congregation’s participation in the opening ceremony is yet to be determined,” Straw said. “However, we are examining ways to involve its members.”

Church members, and all those who have tugged the bell’s rope and heard its ring, understand the bell’s power.

“The effect it has on people is widespread. It really is,” Braxton said. “You never know who really is affected by it.”

Braxton is reminded of London’s Great Bell, more familiarly known as Big Ben.

“When it rings, you’re listening to British history, because it’s rung all this time,” Braxton said. “Looking at (First Baptist’s) bell, listening to that bell, we see that same thing. And we’re hoping when it goes (to the museum), people are going to hear the same thing that we hear when it’s ringing.”

The bell will return to First Baptist Church before the Oct. 16 celebration of the church's 240th anniversary.

“Now, what’s next? I wish I knew,” Braxton said. “But we’ll be ready for it.”

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

Dedication Ceremony

When: Musical prelude at 9 a.m., ceremony at 10 a.m., Sept. 24

Where: National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C.

The public can watch the ceremony from the grounds of the Washington Monument and on Jumbotrons spread throughout the area. The ceremony will be streamed live at nmaahc.si.edu.

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