This was a long time coming.
In 1776, the First Baptist Church was established in Williamsburg, Virginia. It was led by Gowan Pamphlet, a slave owned by the proprietor of the King’s Arm Tavern, who had learned to read and write and who had served many famous travelers including George Washington. Since the entire congregation was comprised of enslaved persons, the “church” was at first nothing more than a secret meeting in the woods. Over the years, the church held services at numerous temporary locations until a permanent brick meeting house was constructed in 1856.
In 1859, Elijah Odom was born into servitude in Mississippi. In 1863, with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, he technically became a free man. But for many years he remained a slave, forced to pick berries. Sometime later – there’s no way to know when exactly – he and his brothers escaped. Elijah went on to attend Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, and then he opened a store and pharmacy in Biscoe, Arkansas, serving the needs of the town’s black residents. He had eight children, including a daughter named Ruth, born in 1917.
Meanwhile, back in Williamsburg, in 1886, the First Baptist Church commissioned and installed a bell, named the “Freedom Bell” in honor of the Emancipation Proclamation. The bell rang for decades, but later fell into disrepair; from the 1960’s onward it was no longer in use. But in 2016, on the church’s 240th anniversary, the bell was restored so it could ring again.
In 2003, after a long and bitter fight led by Congressman John Lewis, President George W. Bush signed legislation authorizing the creation of a national museum to highlight the African-American experience. For the next few years, the museum, led by Board members like Colin Powell and First Lady Laura Bush, struggled to attain the funding it needed. But several wealthy benefactors including Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey stepped up, and a capital campaign led by Kenneth Chenault of American Express kept the momentum going, and the funds were eventually raised. Incredibly, over $4MM of the budget came from individual donations of less than $1,000.
September 24, 2016, was a postcard day on the National Mall in Washington. At 10:30, crowds of dignitaries began to assemble at the museum. For the next two hours, they were treated to songs and speeches by over a dozen political heavyweights and entertainers. At 12:10, the nation’s first black President spoke, concluding, “It is a monument, no less than the others on this Mall, to the deep and abiding love for this country, and the ideals upon which it is founded. For we, too, are America.”
And then, at 12:30, four generations of Elijah Odom’s family took the stage. They were led by his daughter Ruth, who at the age of 99 had to be carefully assisted by her grandchildren. She was led to a rope that was attached to the Freedom Bell of the First Baptist Church of Williamsburg, which had been brought to the museum for this occasion. And then, slightly unsteady but held up by her family and President Obama, and assisted by her 7-year-old great-granddaughter Christine and First Lady Michelle Obama, Ruth Odom Bonner, daughter of a slave, pulled the rope that rang the bell that dedicated the National Museum of African-American History and Culture.
Across the country, church bells echoed in response.