WILLIAMSBURG, Va. (Tuesday, Jan. 26) – Founded in 1776 by enslaved men and women, the First Baptist Church of Williamsburg, one of the country’s oldest African-American houses of worship¹, will celebrate its 240th anniversary with the first ringing of its restored bell, which has laid silent since the days of segregation. In honor of the historic occasion, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, whose conservators restored the bell, will host a special ceremony at the First Baptist Church on Feb. 1. The event, featuring America’s civil rights heroes and activists will launch a challenge to the nation to ring the restored bell throughout the day — every day — during Black History Month as a call for racial healing, peace, and justice nationwide.
The first ringing of the bell will take place on Feb. 1 at 10 a.m. and will include civil rights giants Rev. Jesse Jackson, Dr. Bernard Lafayette, Rhea McCauley representing the family of civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks, and dignitaries U.S Ambassador-at-Large Suzan Johnson Cook (2011-2013 – Obama Administration), Hampton University President Dr. William Harvey, as well as artists and social activists Danny Glover, Dionne Warwick and Esperanza Spalding. The Let Freedom Ring: A Call to Heal a Nation ceremonies will honor the church, and challenge all Americans to play a part in history by ringing the bell throughout Black History Month. A national broadcast and digital PSA campaign will also feature Yoko Ono, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, and other artists, dignitaries, and social activists urging American to take the #LetFreedomRingChallenge.
“The First Baptist Church and its bell encapsulate the complex and at times tragic history of race relations in America,” said Mitchell B. Reiss, President and CEO of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. “The bell’s restoration not only demonstrates our recognition of the past, it also symbolizes our determination to continue the march toward justice and the ‘more perfect union’ envisioned by the Founding Fathers on these very streets. We are excited to present these special events as part of our effort to honor Black History, and to galvanize Americans of all backgrounds to ring for progress and the nation’s healing.”
Led by the Rev. Dr. Reginald Davis, the 21st Pastor of the First Baptist Church, the Let Freedom Ring Bell ceremony will be held from 10 a.m. – 11:30 a.m. on Monday, Feb. 1, featuring speakers Reverend Jesse Jackson, Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook and AARP CEO and Colonial Williamsburg Trustee Jo Ann Jenkins, plus a performance by Award winning vocalist Valerie Simpson accompanied by the Hampton University Choir.
Following the ceremony, more than 300 participants will take a turn at ringing the bell, letting it be heard for the first time since the early days of segregation. Among those gathered to ring the bell will be the Hemings and Jefferson families, direct descendants of U.S. President Thomas Jefferson of Virginia and the family of Dontre Hamilton, a young black man fatally wounded by police in Milwaukee.
Evening’s events will culminate with the Concert for Hope and awards gala hosted by Danny Glover. A special awards presentation will be made to Dr. Bernard Lafayette, a leader of the Selma Voting Rights Movement and a founder of the Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies at the University of Rhode Island. The celebration, held from 7 – 9 p.m. includes performances by the legendary Dionne Warwick, songwriter/performance artist Valerie Simpson, and Grammy – Award winner Esperanza Spalding and the Hampton University Choir. The concert will be produced by Nona Hendryx of Lady Marmalade fame with Ray Chew (Dancing with the Stars) as musical director.
Americans of every race, color and creed can join the celebration and reserve their turn to ring the bell beginning Feb. 1. Throughout the month of February the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and the College of William & Mary will also feature a series of special museum exhibits, lectures, films, town halls and events in celebration of the First Baptist Church of Williamsburg’s 240th anniversary and Black History Month. To reserve a spot to ring the bell and for more information about events and activities during Black History Month visit http://www.LetFreedomRingChallenge.org.
The Let Freedom Ring challenge is made possible in part by a generous grant from the Ford Foundation of New York.
¹ A small number of black Baptist churches can legitimately claim to be the oldest in America — First African Baptist in Savannah, Ga., for example, and Silver Bluff Baptist Church in Jackson, S.C. However, First Baptist Church in Williamsburg is believed to be the first black Baptist church that was organized entirely by African Americans.
About the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation preserves, restores and operates Virginia’s 18th-century capital of Williamsburg. Innovative and interactive experiences, such as the street theater Revolutionary City® and
the RevQuest: Save the Revolution!TM series of technology-assisted alternate reality games, highlight the relevance of the American Revolution to contemporary life and the importance of an informed, active citizenry. The Colonial Williamsburg experience includes more than 400 restored or reconstructed original buildings, renowned museums of decorative arts and folk art, extensive educational outreach programs for students and teachers, lodging, culinary options from historic taverns to casual or elegant dining, the Golden Horseshoe Golf Club featuring 45 holes designed by Robert Trent Jones and his son Rees Jones, a full-service spa and fitness center, pools, retail stores and gardens. Philanthropic support and revenue from admissions, products and hospitality operations sustain Colonial Williamsburg’s educational programs and preservation initiatives.
About First Baptist Church
First Baptist Church of Williamsburg originated in 1776 with a quest by a group of courageous slaves and free blacks who wanted to worship God in their own way. In their search, they left the church of slave owners, such as Bruton Parish Church, where worship was formal and restrained. First led by Moses, a free black itinerant preacher, they built a brush arbor at Green Spring Plantation a few miles from town to gather secretly in song and prayer. Organized as Baptists by 1781 under Rev. Gowan Pamphlet, an enslaved man in Williamsburg, worshippers moved to Raccoon Chase, a rural area just outside Williamsburg. A member of the white Cole family, moved by their stirring hymns and heartfelt prayers, offered the group the use of his carriage house on Nassau Street for a meeting place. Pamphlet continued as pastor until his death about 1807. The African Baptist Church, as it became known before the Civil War, dedicated a new brick church on Nassau Street in 1856, the congregation’s church home for the next 100 years. It was renamed First Baptist Church of Williamsburg in 1863. The present church at 727 Scotland Street has served the congregation since 1956.