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Ringing the Bells of Emancipation

By Wendy Swanson

Washington, D.C.

Friday, January 6, 2023

Sunday, January 1, 2023, not only marked the beginning of the New Year. The day also celebrated the 160th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Accordingly, it was only fitting and proper that special remembrances of the occasion took place on that day – and what better site for such a commemoration than the Lincoln Memorial. Leading the festivities was the National Bell Festival, which planned the bell ringing tribute, held on the steps of the Memorial. The Lincoln Group supported this event.

The symbolic “star” of the afternoon - the bell, of course - was rolled into place shortly before 2 p.m. There it awaited its moment in the spotlight, or should we say, considering the day's balmy weather, the sunlight. Unsuspecting tourists, unaware of the significance of the bell, closely examined the instrument (see photo shown above) while those in the know readied themselves for the event, finding spots to watch once the bell began to toll. The bell itself - cast in bronze by the Fulton Bell Foundry of Pittsburgh in 1863, the same year the Emancipation Proclamation was issued – definitely was worth more than just a quick glance.

At 2:30 p.m. Paul Ashe, director of the National Bell Festival, welcomed those assembled for the program. A reading of portions of the Proclamation itself provided context for the event, ensuring all knew the reason for the celebration. Then all attention focused on the bell and the individuals who would make it chime. The bell ringers – a diverse group of men and women, old and young, from different ethnic backgrounds – lined up. Each took a turn ringing the bell, each responsible for ten rings – for a total of 160 chimes, each toll signifying a year in the Proclamation’s “lifetime.” The sound traveled from the immediate area of the Memorial, across the Reflecting Pool, to the National Mall and beyond.

Above, one of those who rang the bell of emancipation. This gentleman did so with such gusto that the chime likely was heard beyond the boundaries of the District.

After the tolling ended, a surprise! Dr. B. J. Douglass advised those gathered that the day marked another anniversary: the 250th of the writing of the lyrics of "Amazing Grace." Who knew? Dr. Douglass then proceeded to sing a special and inspiring version of that iconic hymn. The steps of the Memorial were filled with visitors; many of them stopped in their tracks, listening as she sang.

More bells are coming! The program ended with a brief announcement: the National Bell Festival plans to construct a 65 bell tower in Washington, D.C. The bell tower will stand in Southeast DC, adjacent to the new Bridge District in Ward 8. This news met approval from those gathered.

Each bell will have the name of an American abolitionist or anti-slavery activist (think Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, for example). Emancipation Bells, as the tower will be named, will house two belfries: one containing a concert-grade grand carillon of 52 bells (these will be the bells named after prominent Black abolitionists) and the other containing a ring of 12 swinging peal bells bearing the names of antislavery allies and activists. A large central bell will be suspended between the two belfries and will toll four times annually on dates important to the Emancipation story, i.e., the date the Proclamation was announced; the date the Proclamation went into effect: DC Emancipation Day; and Juneteenth. The structure will be surrounded by an amphitheater and outdoor performing arts space. For additional information on the National Bell Festival and its mission and on this particular project, see

Advance announcements for the event advised those planning to attend – this being winter in DC – to bundle up warmly for their visit. No such precautions were necessary – the sun shone brightly with temperatures in the 60s. Quite a change from the single digit temperatures experienced only the weekend before! This quite simply was a day of light, not only weather-wise but also considering the subject being celebrated: freedom and emancipation! A powerful way to start a new year and a day to remember and reflect upon this aspect of the Lincoln legacy.

Photo credits: Wendy Swanson


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