There are other pivotal moments you can imagine the bell ringing, Maris-Wolf noted. The end of World War I and World War II, for example. The bell likely did not ring at other significant times for the church, either. The Brown vs. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954 that declared segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional. The publication of King's letter from the Birmingham jail or the March on Washington, culminating with the "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963. Or the signing a year later of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion or national origin.
"The meaning of this bell is a dream deferred," Maris-Wolf said.
An important part of the church's story — and one that the bell can help tell — is of resilience and perseverance, said Stephen Seals, the program development manager for African American programming at Colonial Williamsburg.
"The names changed and the buildings changed, but what didn't change was the drive," said Seals, a leading member of the bell-project committee.
That effort can include the sometimes difficult conversation about the role of slavery in that story. Dennis Gardner, a member of First Baptist Church who grew up in Williamsburg during the 1950s, called it a wonderful opportunity to talk about the church, which was birthed by people who believed in their right to practice religion at a time when freedom of all kinds was denied to them.
"We want people to understand the significance of the bell to freedom and what this symbolizes, the church's longevity. The knowledge of what they were up against," said Allen, a co-chair of the Lemon Project, which encourages study and re-examination of the 300-year relationship between African Americans and William & Mary. "They persevered and the story has come down through the generations. We want people to understand and revere the people who came before them.
"So often you don't have that kind of memory. People want to forget for whatever reason. This is a unique opportunity, especially in the African American community. They come and do this and start to think about their own family history and their own church history," she said.
We should place a higher value on perseverance, Allen said. "These were really tough people, strong people who had a vision that was passed down through the years."
There are intensely personal reasons for ringing the bell. To signal hope. To call for open and frank conversations about what divides us as a nation. To come to a reckoning for misunderstandings and even ignorance. To heal.
"I'm happy to see it return," Gardner said. His childhood memories include standing in the Nassau Street church's vestibule, pulling the rope to ring the bell. Children considered it a privilege, he said.
First Baptist Church members hope that embracing the responsibility that goes with that privilege will be part of what could become a movement for a change of heart.
"It's got to start somewhere," said Nat Brown, who is directing external communications for First Baptist. "What better place than a church?"