‘Let Freedom Ring’ initiative aimed at healing America

Joey Matthews | 1/29/2016, 6:15 a.m.
Descendants of Thomas Jefferson, the nation’s third president, and Sally Hemings, the African-American woman he enslaved and fathered six children ...
The newly restored bell at historic First Baptist Church of Williamsburg can be rung throughout Black History Month by people who register online at www.letfreedomringchallenge.org. Photo by Darnell Vennie/The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Descendants of Thomas Jefferson, the nation’s third president, and Sally Hemings, the African-American woman he enslaved and fathered six children with, are scheduled to gather at historic First Baptist Church of Williamsburg at 10 a.m. Monday, Feb. 1.

They are to be the first to ring the newly restored church bell at an invitation-only event designed to kick off “Let Freedom Ring: A Call to Heal a Nation,” an initiative at the African-American church that is one of the nation’s oldest.

Organizers said the bell-ringing initiative is a “call for racial healing, peace and justice nationwide.” It allows anyone to sign up online at www.let freedomringchallenge.org to ring the bell at the church on any day during Black History Month.

Among those also scheduled to ring the bell on Feb. 1 are civil rights giant Jesse Jackson Sr.; Dr. Bernard Lafayette and Rhea McCauley, representing the family of Rosa Parks; former U.S. Ambassador Susan John Cook; Hampton University President William Harvey; and entertainers and social activists Danny Glover, Dionne Warwick, Malcolm Jamal Warner, Esperanza Spalding and Yoko Ono, widow of the late Beatles star John Lennon.

Also part of the celebration will be representatives of the National Network for Arab Americans, a national consortium that “is honored to support a campaign that brings issues of racism and civil rights to the forefront,” according to its website.

The event also will commemorate the 240th anniversary of First Baptist Church, which was formed in secret in 1776 by enslaved and free black men and women. It is believed to be the first black Baptist church organized entirely by African-Americans.

The church, which has about 200 members, was started within what is now the restored area of Colonial Williamsburg. It has been at its present location, 727 Scotland St., since 1956.

The Rev. Reginald F. Davis, pastor at First Baptist, said he welcomes individuals and groups uniting to help achieve the unfinished business of social justice for all in the nation.

“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who prayed in our church, said that freedom rings,” Dr. Davis stated. “A silent bell represents unfinished work of freedom and equality. This bell, in this sacred and historic church, will be silent no more.”

The bell and the church belfry were restored with a $52,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, according to Joseph Straw, a spokesperson for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

The bell was acquired by the church in the late 19th century and has been silent since the days of segregation, even in the presence of famed worshipers at the church, including Dr. King and Mrs. Parks.

“The First Baptist Church and its bell encapsulate the complex and at times tragic history of race relations in America,” stated Mitchell B. Reiss, president and CEO of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, which operates the historic restored area of Williamsburg that served as capital of the Virginia colony from 1699 to 1780.

At the time, “roughly 50 percent of the city of Williamsburg’s population was African-American and nearly all of those people were enslaved,” Mr. Straw said.