A Bell Resounds at the Lincoln Memorial

New Year’s Day 2023 marked the exact 160th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation that President Abraham Lincoln signed on January 1, 1863. The document declared “that all persons held as slaves” within rebel states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” With that momentous stroke of the pen, more than 3.5 million enslaved people in the secessionist Confederate states gained their freedom.

Planning a proper commemoration 

Our eponymous festival, coinciding with such an anniversary, provided a fitting occasion to pay tribute to not only the historic document, but also to the ongoing march toward full and equal civil rights that followed. We chose to commemorate the moment in the only way we know how – with the solemn and dignified tolling of a bell. 

We could think of no place more suitable to ring this bell than at the foot of the monument to our 16th president himself: the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The neoclassical temple to a fallen president, surrounded by 36 Doric columns (one for each state at the time of his death), rises from the western end of the National Mall. Thankfully, the National Park Service, who administers the site, agreed. We were granted a permit to bring a bell to Mr. Lincoln.

Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. at sunrise

Image: View of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., at sunrise.

We were then faced with a question: Which bell? The imposing scale of the Memorial demanded a bell of considerable stature, but not just any big bell would do. We wanted a bell that connected us through time to Emancipation itself, which was a tough order. We reached out to our network of campanologists, collectors, bell foundries, bell towers, and salvage yards. No luck.

Sourcing a bell from 1863, the year the Proclamation was issued, was not an easy feat. The nation was at war with itself and metals like bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, were in high demand for armament. A recession also squeezed the purses of individuals, buildings, and institutions, leaving little money for such ephemeral delights as bells. In fact, many existing bells were confiscated from towers and churches to be melted down for the war effort.

We then stumbled upon a dealer of historic bells in Michigan, almost 600 miles from Washington, D.C. He had a bell in his collection that fit the bill: from the right time period, of suitable size, and beautifully decorated. It was originally cast by the Fulton bell foundry in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for the deck of a paddle wheel steamer. We placed the order.

A historic bell arrives in Washington

One week later, we were thrilled with news of a delivery, but receiving a historic bell, especially one that weighs over 800 lbs., is challenging in a metropolis like Washington, D.C. The bell needed to be removed from the delivery truck with a forklift. Do you have a forklift? Neither do we. So we called our friends at Redbrick LMD who are developing the Bridge District (site of the Emancipation Bells in the near future). With the help of HITT Contracting, their builders, we had the bell firmly planted on D.C. soil in no time. 

Fulton bell in van for transport

Image: The 1863 Fulton bell concealed beneath a blue tarp on a pallet in the back of a delivery van.

A bell is just a hunk of metal if it cannot hang and ring, so our next challenge was to build a stand that could both accommodate the hefty weight of the bell, while being portable enough to move it to and from the Lincoln Memorial. Again, we relied on our friends – the National Bell Festival is blessed and grateful to have so many wonderful individual and institutional supporters.

We were given garage space in Fairfax, Virginia, just outside Washington, to complete the build. Tools were lent. Expertise was given. Sweat was shed. And in the end, a stand took shape. We mounted the original bell supports with beautiful scrolling details on top of the rolling stand, added trim for a polished look, and gave it a uniform stain.

Detail of the 1863 Fulton bell stand and supports

Image: Detail of the 1863 Fulton bell's stand and supports. A tassel has been added to the clapper by organizers of the National Bell Festival to aid the bell ringers in their task.

Next up: lifting the bell into place. Easier. Said. Than. Done. Did we mention the bell was over 800 lbs.? The design of the stand required the bell to be lowered from above, not lifted from below, so we needed something with the strength to move the bell while also being portable. Transporting a swinging bell on its stand was too risky for us; one stop and the momentum of the bell could topple the stand and damage itself, the van, or us. We needed something that could come with us to the Lincoln Memorial.

Another call was placed, this time to our friends at Metro Motor, a D.C.-based auto repair, collision, and towing company that is a tremendous supporter of and donor to the National Bell Festival. They had just the thing: a robust engine hoist capable of deadlifting a metric ton. Soon, it was with us in Fairfax and, after a few anxious moments, the bell was safely nestled into its cradle. Huzzah!

Making the event truly memorable

To augment our planned bell ringing tribute, we asked a few folks to join us. First, we needed a strong crew to be helpful hands on the day of the event. We also needed bell ringers. Ringing 160 times, one for each year since the Proclamation, would be monotonous and difficult to keep count for only one ringer. So we invited over a dozen folks to each ring a portion of the full set.

Volunteers roll a large bell onto the steps of the Lincoln Memorial

Image: Volunteers with the National Bell Festival roll the 1863 Fulton bell into place on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., during the National Bell Festival on Jan. 1, 2023.

We also were thrilled to be joined by Frederick Douglass IV, who read an abridged version of the Emancipation Proclamation after brief welcome remarks by Paul Ashe, the director of the National Bell Festival. All eyes turned to us as the first strike of the bell sent a resonant sound across the marble steps of the Memorial. The tolling had begun.

Trinette Chase rings a bell before a large crowd with the Washington Monument in the distance

Image: Trinette Janice Chase, Ms. Senior D.C., rings a portion of the 160 tolls honoring the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation during the National Bell Festival on Jan. 1, 2023.

Before a crowd of several hundred, our ringers each stood and rang with grace, one after the other, until all 160 tolls had been sounded. 

Speaking of grace, New Year’s Day 2023 was also the 250th anniversary of the debut of the lyrics of the hymn “Amazing Grace.” We thought that could be a soul-stirring finale after the final toll dissolved into the Reflecting Pool. Dr. BJ Douglass agreed and lent her incredible voice to the occasion. 

Dr. BJ Douglass on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the 2023 National Bell Festival

Image: Dr. BJ Douglass performs "Amazing Grace" on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the National Bell Festival's tribute to the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 2023.

We closed with an exciting announcement, finally unveiling our plans for a new bell tower in Washington called the Emancipation Bells. A grand carillon of 52 bells will be paired with a ring of 12 swinging peal bells, with each bell named in honor of an abolitionist or antislavery activist. The structure will rise near the Bridge District in Southeast D.C. and be the first of its kind east of the Anacostia River.

It took some work, many volunteer hours, and a good deal of planning, but we’re proud of our small-but-mighty tribute to the Emancipation Proclamation, as well as our ongoing efforts to keep the stories and voices of abolitionists alive in our new bell tower. After all, the bell of freedom cannot be unrung.

Cover image: Frederick Douglass IV reads an abridged version of the Emancipation Proclamation next to the 1863 Fulton bell on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., during the National Bell Festival on Jan. 1, 2023.