Last Friday, I flew from my home in Miami to Washington to attend the quarterly board meeting of Free the Slaves, one of the most important anti-slavery organizations in the world today. Coincidently, my parents, who reside in Williamsburg, Virginia, were in Washington as well. They did not know that I was in D.C., so I thought I would show up at their hotel on Friday night to surprise them.
But that’s not the most interesting part of this story. You see, my parents were in Washington for a wholly unrelated, yet ultimately related, reason. My stepfather, Donald Hill, serves as a trustee (vice chair) for the First Baptist Church in Williamsburg. My mother, Daisy Hill, provides significant support to the church. The congregation was formed in 1776, and was the very first church built for African Americans. Notably, the church was built by blacks and former slaves.
In the mid 1900s, the church’s bell fell into disrepair. It was idle for decades. Donald and Daisy, and many others, decided it was time to refurbish it, and my parents helped lead the way. They began in October of 2015, and the congregation rang the bell for the first time on January 31, 2016. This remarkable symbol of American history became accessible to the public during Black History Month of 2016, when the church launched Let Freedom Ring!
Thousands of people – including me – came to the church from all over the country to ring the bell and proclaim their belief in freedom and equality. Let Freedom Ring! was so successful that it was continued beyond Black History Month and throughout the year. People continue to pour in.
This year, as many were planning for the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, someone (I don’t know who) thought it would be appropriate to have a historic bell rung to commemorate the opening of the museum. Through an alignment of stars that could have never been anticipated, the First Baptist Church bell was shipped to the museum on the National Mall. Donald and Daisy were among a handful of the members of the congregation invited to witness the ceremony, and on Saturday, they watched President of the United States Barack Obama ring THEIR BELL to commemorate the opening of the museum.
I could not be prouder of my parents. They are the incarnation of love, humility, and servant leadership. As I get older, and get to know my parents even better, I realize that my own harkening to serve the trafficked and enslaved, is a byproduct of loving parents, and less coincidental than a chance opportunity to meet in Washington.
Greg Haile is vice chair of the Free the Slaves board of directors.