Over the weekend, the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened its doors to the public, signaling an important shift in the cataloging of Black history. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama ushered in this new era with the ringing of the “Freedom Bell” of the First Baptist Church of Williamsburg, Virginia, which has its own rich history.
First Baptist was established by a group of enslaved and free Blacks who met in secrecy ahead of the official opening of the church. A white landowner in the region gave use of his carriage house to the group of the church in 1776, the same year the Declaration of Independence was signed.
The bell came later and was purchased by the church in 1886. Over time, the bell fell into disrepair and laid dormant even through the turbulent and triumphant times of the civil rights movement. The Colonial Williamsburg group graciously provided funds for the bell’s restoration in 2015, which unveiled much of the bell’s history. It was considered a “schoolhouse” bell and several others like it are said to be in existence.
The bell’s toll was heard across the National Mall as the Obamas pulled the string to ring the sound along with the help of 99-year-old Ruth Bonner. Ms. Bonner, the daughter of an escaped Mississippi slave, who then made his way through medical school, was flanked by four generations of her family.
The bell will not remain on the museum grounds. Instead, it will return to its church home where church leaders are hoping visitors will visit First Baptist to see it for themselves.