It started with a simple conversation about fixing a bell.
In early 2015, representatives from the First Baptist Church and Colonial Williamsburg began talking about restoring the long-silent bell in the church's belfry to working order.
The bell, purchased by the congregation in 1886, has not rung in more than 50 years. We were sure that, working together, we could remedy the problem. Colonial Williamsburg's preservation experts and a series of consultants examined the bell to determine the scope of the project, which they found to be clearly feasible. For the Foundation, the decision to help was an easy one, given the significant and complex legacy that Colonial Williamsburg and this historic church share.
The more we talked, though, the more the discussion drifted beyond the topics of rust, rope and tools. Yes, we would fix the bell. But perhaps we could work together to accomplish something more — something of even greater meaning — not only for our respective institutions, but also for our entire community. And maybe, just maybe, for the Nation.
Here was a church, founded in secret in 1776 by a group of enslaved and free blacks in the Williamsburg area, just as our Nation's founders were announcing — here, and throughout the Colonies — their own rebellion against a royal oppressor. These patriots declared as "self-evident" the truth "that all men are created equal.. But in so doing, they failed in that historic document to acknowledge that truth as universal.
Thus, the liberty for which our forefathers fought so courageously remained an unfulfilled dream for generation upon generation of Americans in chains. It took our Nation nearly a century to rectify that painful contradiction, culminating in bloody civil war and, finally, emancipation. And it would take another century to recover from the often-violent aftermath: Post-Reconstruction oppression of black Americans, racially segregated schools, and countless other examples of institutional racism.
Through it all, First Baptist Church of Williamsburg remained, persevered, grew. It flourished, in fact, moving to a brick church on historic Nassau Street, and then to a larger building on Scotland Street, where it remains today. But over time, structural and safety concerns have silenced the bell in its tower. No one has heard the bell — a symbol of freedom and hope as much as a call to worship — in decades.
This was the legacy on which we were reflecting this year, as the stories of racial tension, and of racially-charged violence and killings, continued to populate front pages of America's newspapers. 2015 was a year of tragedy, and of anger — violent fury, even — about race in our country today.
So as we planned the bell's restoration, we set our sights higher. With this writing, we urge every American to join us at the church this February and help us keep this symbolic bell ringing throughout Black History Month — in this special year marking the 240th anniversary of both the Declaration of Independence and the First Baptist Church of Williamsburg.
It is our sincere hope that with this simple act, we may channel the courage and the foresight of America's founders, and of the church's founders, so that we may further the national conversation and bring to it a renewed sense of hope. By taking your turn at the bell rope, you will join a movement to honor the past — its triumphs, and its tragedies — while at the same time, declaring your commitment to a brighter future.
Thank you, and may 2016 be a year of understanding and renewal. We hope to see you here soon.
Image: Discussions between Colonial Williamsburg President and CEO Mitchell Reiss (left) and First Baptist Church Pastor R.F. Davis soon turned from restoration to something more.