Stockbridge church bell joins nationwide peal marking 400 years since arrival of enslaved Africans

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STOCKBRIDGE — Precisely at 3 p.m. on Sunday, the bell at St. Paul's Episcopal Church rang out for four minutes, one minute for each century to mark the roots of slavery in our country.

Historical records indicate that Aug. 25, 1619, was the date "20 and odd" Africans were brought to a British settlement in Virginia. They were indentured servants without contracts, meaning the plantation owners decided if — at all — they would eventually be set free.

The Africans' arrival would eventually lead to nearly 250 years of slavery in the British colonies that would later become the United States of America.

"The ringing of the bells is a small gesture to acknowledge the role slavery played in our country," said the Rev. Sam Smith, rector at St. Paul's. "This is about truth and reconciliation."

Sunday's ceremony sounded the country's need to understand the "immoral, inhuman bondage" of slavery that colonists saw as an economic must, according to Lee Cheek with Grace Episcopal Church in Great Barrington.

"It became essential to enslave black people for plantations to succeed," she said. "The farmers felt they wouldn't have survived had they paid their workers."

Cheek and Smith spoke to The Eagle prior to nearly 25 members of Grace and St. Paul's joining together below the church's bell tower for prayer and reflection before ringing the bell.

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"We're looking back so we can redeem ourselves and move forward," said the Right Rev. Douglas Fisher, bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts.

The National Park Service had called upon all 419 national parks, as well as churches, schools and town halls on Sunday to simultaneously ring their bells or make some other unified sound for freedom.

Last weekend, New York Times Magazine's The 1619 Project tackled the issue of slavery that continued long after July 4,1776, when the Founding Fathers declared "all Men are created equal" and blessed with "certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness."

The magazine's editor, Jay Silverstein, wrote that Aug. 25, 1619, not Independence Day, is more likely what gave birth to our nation.

"Out of slavery — and the anti-black racism it required — grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional: its economic might, its industrial power, its electoral system, diet and popular music, the inequities of its public health and education, its astonishing penchant for violence, its income inequality, the example it sets for the world as a land of freedom and equality, its slang, its legal system and the endemic racial fears and hatreds that continue to plague it to this day," Silverstein stated.

Enslaved Africans actually began living on what is U.S. soil decades before the indentured servants arrived in Virginia 400 years ago.

Decades earlier in the 1500s, Africans were part of Spanish colonization in Florida and present-day South Carolina. However, historians recognize the first Virginian Africans were the beginning of race-based slavery in America and are the "founders" of today's African American population.

Dick Lindsay can be reached at rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com and 413-496-6233.


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