We children of the South — direct descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman, and Martha Wayles Jefferson, his wife — hold hands at last as brothers and sisters at the edge of a new day in race relations. Our optimism is not born of naiveté. The terrible reality is that the long march towards freedom and equality proclaimed so long ago in colonial America remains unfinished. That has been made plain in the racial tensions that have afflicted our nation these past few years. It has been made plain in our own struggle to come together as one family after being rent by divides that go back to our nation’s founding.
The wave of nationwide protests following the mass murder of nine worshipers in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and a series of shootings and other deaths of young black men in police custody remind us that the work of healing and reconciliation for the legacies of enslavement, discrimination, and socio-economic inequity has a long way to go. But it also serves to remind us of the goal we all share to form a more perfect union. In Montgomery, Alabama, Martin Luther King, Jr. declared, “The end is reconciliation, the end is redemption, the end is the creation of the beloved community.”
We stand with those who were striving in South Carolina, as the Confederate battle flag was at last lowered from over the State Capitol, who were striving in Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland, Staten Island, and Charleston as people of all races and backgrounds demanded equal treatment before the law. In many ways, events between 2014 and 2015 provided another wake-up call for social justice in America. Through the fire, we inched closer to that beloved community, to freedom and a more perfect union. To that end, something important and compelling is happening in Williamsburg, Virginia, a place indelibly tied to the nation’s founding principles and its painful contradictions.
In February 2016 — Black History Month — a tiny church founded in secret by enslaved black Americans in the auspicious year of 1776 will ring its church bell for the first time since the days of segregation.
The First Baptist Church of Williamsburg may be the oldest organized black house of worship in America. While its first worshipers met under thatched arbors in the woods while they were still the chattel of their fellow men, they and subsequent generations struggled and persevered through the calamity of the Civil War, the decades of Jim Crow, segregation, and the Civil Rights movement. Dr. King and Rosa Parks prayed in the church, but never heard the bell in the belfry above them, which lay stilled by rust and atrophy. They never heard it call people to faith or send them forth to do good works in the world. They never heard freedom ring from that bell. No one has.
In 1776, the independence championed on Williamsburg’s streets by George Washington, Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson was not intended for black Americans, although they built the town houses, government buildings and inns where those leaders met. This is a painful paradox that must not be forgotten.
But those same black Americans also built a church that has followed the arc of the nation’s progress — from the contradictions and unfulfilled promise of the Declaration of Independence to emancipation to the unfinished work of racial healing. These men and women have always found hope and strength in their faith and in the American creed that believed they would one day realize the promise of equality.
Today, the church is challenging America to come to Williamsburg in February to ring the bell and to never let it fall silent again. The bell will sound all day, every day, for the whole month. It will ring thereafter as all church bells do: to summon, celebrate, remind and commemorate.
Taking the bell rope in our hands, together we reach through time to ring for all those who couldn’t as our nation struggled forward and our families became entwined through the bonds of an unjust institution. We reach back to 1776 and connect to those who dared to exercise their religious freedom even as they were denied their basic humanity.
More important, the bell summons us to a better future. The Founding Fathers in Williamsburg and the enslaved black Americans they kept both saw something beautiful over the horizon, even amid so much strife and uncertainty. So by ringing the freedom bell as a family once divided but now healing, we hope to show the greater American family its destiny over the horizon.
As we hear that sacred peal, we cannot help but remember other words from Dr. King and commit ourselves to seeing them accomplished:
“When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we’re free at last!’”
David Works is a direct descendant of Thomas and Martha Jefferson. Diana “Toddy” Redman is a direct descendant of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Redman and Works collaborated with their cousins Prinny Anderson and Shannon LaNier in drafting this article as a part of their ongoing efforts at family reconciliation.