Obama to Inaugurate African American History Museum With Historic Bell

The president will give a speech at the opening.

The Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. Photo: PRESTON KERES/AFP/Getty Images.

President Obama will inaugurate the National Museum of African American History and Culture in a bell ringing ceremony in Washington on September 24.

But the president won’t be ringing just any bell: In a poignant and symbolic gesture, he will be ringing the church bell from the First Baptist Church in Williamsburg, Virginia. The congregation was founded by slaves and freed blacks in 1776, making it one of the oldest African-American churches in the US.

“First Baptist’s is a crucial American story that parallels our entire nation’s,” Colonial Williamsburg president and CEO Mitchell B. Reiss told WKTR. “The Freedom Bell embodies both our shared history and out nation’s founding values as we work toward ‘a more perfect union.’”

The opening ceremony will conclude with four generations of an African American family ringing the bell.

President Obama will speak at the opening of the museum. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

President Obama will speak at the opening of the museum. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

The pastor of the First Baptist Church, the reverend Reginald F. Davis, told the New York Times that while the ceremony is an important reminder of how far America has come in terms of racial equality, the country still has a long way to go. “We are still pursuing those ideals,” he acknowledged. “If we don’t hear from our racial division, our democracy will be undermined.”

The church’s bell, which dates to 1886 and has already been removed and crated for shipping to Washington, will return to its home in southern Virginia in October.

The Smithsonian’s 400,000-square-foot African American Museum tells the 600 year history of the African-American people, highlighting both their displacement and enslavement as well as their enormous contributions to American and global culture.

The exhibits in the cutting-edge museum are built around multimedia displays, films, photographs, and sound installations, and are augmented by documents, oversize objects, and other physical items.

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