By 1830 the Baptist Church of Christ in Williamsburg , then led by Reverend John Dipper , had about 600 members . However , following Nat Turner ’ s Rebellion a new statute decreed that Black persons could not congregate without the presence of at least one white person . Because of this , Reverend Dipper could not lead his flock . Church services were suspended for a year , and hard times fell on Dipper , who was forced to leave Virginia .
In 1856 the congregation — then called the African Baptist Church — dedicated a new brick church on Nassau Street and about thirty years later , the women of the church raised money to purchase a bell to call people to service . Their message : This is a bell that says we will meet again !
During the Civil War , the Confederate army confiscated the church to serve as a hospital for the wounded soldiers of the Battle of Williamsburg . In 1863 , the church officially became the First Baptist Church of Williamsburg .
In 1954 , as Colonial Williamsburg continued to grow and evolve , the Williamsburg Holding Company bought the historic property on Nassau Street for $ 130,000 , and the congregation moved to Scotland Street where a new church was built in 1956 . The edifice , designed by Bernard Spiegel , is an elegant building in the Colonial Revival style , which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on June 6 , 2017 .
Today , First Baptist Church is still a vibrant congregation led by Rev . Dr . Reginald F . Davis .
Now , back to the bell .
The bell , manufactured by Blymyer Norton & Co . in Cincinnati , had been purchased in the 1880s , but it had not rung in years . With the assistance of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation , the church restored the bell in 2015 . In a moving ceremony , the descendants of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson were the first to ring the bell for freedom , justice and equality just outside the sanctuary as a symbol to an audience of thousands .
Later , in 2016 the 500-hundred-pound bell was brought to Washington D . C ., where it rang at the dedication of the Smithsonian ’ s newest museum : the National Museum of African American History and Culture . President Obama and Michelle Obama rang the bell at the dedication of the new museum , and the pastor of First Baptist Church , Dr . Davis , commemorated the day with this statement : “ That it will ring on such a day in the presence of our nation ’ s first African American president , is a glorious advent that we could not have shared in our prayers or imagined in our wildest dreams .”
The bell , solemn and ancient , was joyous witness of a very , very special day .
Partners often advises congregations to set up a separate nonprofit organization to encourage new friends and allies , and explore wider avenues of philanthropy in their efforts to preserve and restore their historic building . First Baptist Church had the wisdom to do so , and on June 27 , 2018 , the Commonwealth of Virginia ’ s State Corporation Commission issued the certificate of incorporation for the Let Freedom Ring Foundation . The Foundation received its first $ 10,000 donation from the National Council of Negro Women .
I have spoken several times with Ms . Harshaw , and admired her warmth and wisdom , her grace and determination . The foundation is very active — engaging the community and seeking out strategic partnerships and funding opportunities .
President Obama and Michelle Obama joined representatives from First Baptist to ring the bell at the dedication of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington , D . C . Photo : Getty Images
Now , in collaboration with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and First Baptist Church , the Foundation is taking on the Nassau Street Archeological Project — uncovering the original site of First Baptist Church on Nassau Street dating back to at least 1856 . The goal of the project is to bring life back to that site so that its history can be shown to visitors via interpretative programs . The Foundation has already raised close to $ 450,000 from supporters to fund the first and second phases of this remarkable project .
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