Churches and others will join the National Park Service in ringing bells at 3 p.m. EDT Sunday, Aug. 25, to mark 400 years since the first recorded arrival of enslaved Africans in English-occupied North America.
The ceremony is part of a weekend of activities and a Day of Healing at Fort Monroe National Monument, Hampton, Va., site of the Africans' arrival in late August of 1619. It also connects with a year of observances around the United States, coordinated by a coalition called 400 Years of Inequality.
"Bells are symbols of freedom," says a National Park Service web page describing the event. "They are rung for joy, sorrow, alarm, and celebration – universal concepts in each of our lives. This symbolic gesture will enable Americans from all walks of life to participate in this historic moment from wherever they are – to capture the spirit of healing and reconciliation while honoring the significance of 400 years of African American history and culture."
One congregation taking part is First United Church of Christ in Hampton, just 10 miles from the site. It is inviting all interested people to gather at 2:45 p.m., and select one of more than 100 handbells that will be available. The Rev. Ann Hill, interim pastor, will lead a commemorative litany at 2:55 p.m., and then participants will ring for four minutes – one minute for every 100 years since the arrival. A free ice cream social will follow. Organizer Diane Drury, director of music, said she hopes people concerned about parking, walking or crowds at Fort Monroe will consider the church's easily accessible "satellite" event.
Drury said First UCC's nearness to Fort Monroe is not the only reason for its interest. The church has both African American and white members and a strong relationship with the predominantly African American Wesley Grove UCC in nearby Newport News. "We are so sensitive about the racial tensions in our community and our country," Drury said. "We want to find a path forward. When I heard the idea of bells ringing around the country to recognize everything that has happened in these 400 years, I felt that we had to do something."
Another is Old South Church, UCC, Boston, an early leader in the movement to abolish slavery. "Old South Church in the 16- and 1700s welcomed into membership and baptized more Africans than any church in the Boston area," said the Rev. Nancy Taylor, who in 2015 preached a sermon naming them.
Old South's Aug. 25 observance will include elements in morning worship as well as the afternoon bell ringing. During 9 and 11 a.m. services, worshipers will stand, face Africa and say a litany on the slave-trading route known as the Middle Passage. The names of the congregation’s early African members will be read aloud.
At 3 p.m., the tolling of the church's tower bell will be accompanied by an honored African American hymn, "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," played on handbells in front of the church on Boston's Copley Square. There the congregation's storytellers, ranging in age from 7 to 80, "will tell stories of African Americans who have influenced them personally or the nation," Taylor said. "They will hold portraits of the persons whose story they are telling."
Churches interested in holding an observance can find information here. In social media posts about events, people are encouraged to use the hashtags #RingToRemember and #400Years.