Williamsburg, Virginia is the birthplace of African American history. It was here that the first slaves arrived in 1619 one year before the Mayflower. Their arrival initiated the slave trade that would lay the foundation of America’s wealth. The experience that these natives of West Central Africa had in cultivating tobacco proved to be a critical asset to the colony. Evidence suggests that many of these Africans, sold into slavery at Jamestown, became baptized and took Christian names. Although Christianity would become the cornerstone of this black community, their worship was relegated to the balcony or back pews of their master’s churches. Forbidden from meeting outside of the presence of at least one white man, they began convening in secret, founding in 1776 what is now The First Baptist Church of Williamsburg, Virginia.

Monday, February 1st began the 240th-anniversary celebration of this historic event. In celebration, The Historic First Baptist Church of Williamsburg, Virginia, under the leadership of Dr. Reginald Davis, kicked off Black History Month with a ceremony titled, “Let Freedom Ring: A Call for Racial Healing, Peace, and Justice.” The event welcomed dignitaries, statesmen, civil rights leaders and clergy to speak before an audience of hundreds to commemorate the ringing of the recently restored church bell (a project funded by The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation) which hasn’t rung since the 1950s.  The ringing of the bell is a symbolic call to action as racial tensions and social unrest continue to mount nationally. People from all over the country have reserved spots  to ring the bell throughout the month of February as part of the BET-endorsed “Let Freedom Ring Challenge.”

President and CEO of Colonial Williamsburg, Mitchell Reiss , Pastor of The Historic First Baptist Church, Reverend Dr. Reginald Davis, The Reverend Jesse Jackson
Photo: vagazette.com

I approached the event with profound reverence but definitely went in with a certain preconceived expectation. I was prepared for an accounting of the Civil Rights Era as the golden age of respectability, followed by a call to action for this generation of “wayward black youth” to pull up their pants, turn down their music and take off their hoodies to avert ‘self-imposed’ demise. I rehearsed side-eye restraint while mentally bracing for the full onus of society’s ills to be placed firmly at the feet of these “lost black youth.” I expected there’d be no balance given between personal responsibility and the reality of a flagrantly biased society. If past experience at black history programs elsewhere were any indicator, I was certain that phrases like “no home training” would be thrown around, as if children are responsible for the circumstances of their birth, and all of this without regard for educational and economic disparity, gross inequity in policy, or the adverse effect that consistent systematic oppression has had on the black family and community as a whole.

Photo: glee.wikia.com

This event beautifully annihilated my cynical expectations as each speaker came with data supported acknowledgment of the reality of our severe history in relation to the current state of race relations in America. In his keynote address, the Reverend Jesse Jackson illuminated the practice of lynching as a form of racial terror, providing a state-by-state statistical breakdown of the 4,500 blacks lynched under Jim Crow. The parallel between this horrific custom and current day events was palpable as Rev. Jackson noted, “never was there a charge against the lynch mobs.” Everyone, from Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook to Dr. Reginald Davis, honored the triumphant spirit of a people who insisted on succeeding.

I watched from the balcony as Valerie Simpson broke into a soul-stirring spontaneous rendition of “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand,” accompanied by Dione Warwick and the Hampton University choir. As the audience stood, hand in hand, I found myself welling up as I thought of all the black people — my ancestors, who risked their lives in the revolutionary act of honoring the fullness of their humanity.

Photo: sandiegouniontribune.com
Photo: sandiegouniontribune.com

Surely there were some slaves who viewed their desire for freedom of expression as obnoxious and over-bearing. I’m certain that there were others who resented their vision of a place for themselves beyond the construct of their three-fifths existence and echoed the ideology that they should be content, even grateful, to be allowed in the balcony or back pews of their master’s church. But many people refused to listen; these renegades audaciously risked their lives to carve out a place for themselves where they could be free.

The next day, I headed back to The Historic First Baptist Church of Williamsburg, Virginia to accept the #LetFreedomRingChallenge and honor the legacy of these brave men and women by continuing to exercise faith not just as a means of tolerating injustice and surviving struggle, but as a vehicle to construct new realties that dignify the totality of who we are.

Let us know how you intend to Let Freedom Ring #LetFreedomRingChallenge #WhyIWillRing


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