‘The Emancipation Bells’ — a 65-bell tower and community center planned for SE DC

Dr. Bruce Purnell rings the 1863 bell on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the 2023 National Bell Festival.
Dr. Bruce Purnell rings the 1863 bell on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the 2023 National Bell Festival. (Courtesy: Bells.org)
U.S. Marine Corps Veteran Tweila-Rochelle Cauthen rings the 1863 bell on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the 2023 National Bell Festival.
U.S. Marine Corps Veteran Tweila-Rochelle Cauthen rings the 1863 bell on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the 2023 National Bell Festival. (Courtesy: Bells.org)
Frederick Douglass IV reads the Emancipation Proclamation from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the 2023 National Bell Festival.
Frederick Douglass IV reads the Emancipation Proclamation from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the 2023 National Bell Festival. (Courtesy: Bells.org)
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Dr. Bruce Purnell rings the 1863 bell on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the 2023 National Bell Festival.
U.S. Marine Corps Veteran Tweila-Rochelle Cauthen rings the 1863 bell on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the 2023 National Bell Festival.
Frederick Douglass IV reads the Emancipation Proclamation from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the 2023 National Bell Festival.

On Sunday, a historic bell from the Civil War era rang in the New Year at the steps of D.C.’s Lincoln Memorial and plans were announced for a new 65-bell tower and community amphitheater in Southeast.

The annual tribute was led by National Bell Festival, which organizes the New Year’s Day bell ringing and celebration at sites in D.C. and across the nation.

“Today, freedom rang. Across the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, through the hearts of those in attendance, and dissolving into the Reflecting Pool, each toll of this historic bell spoke of the march toward dignity and equality for all,” Paul Ashe, director of the National Bell Festival, told WTOP. “The Emancipation Proclamation was an inflection point in our shared American story – a moment in time that was our privilege and honor to commemorate with the resonant strike of a bell.”

The historic bell, built in 1863, was sounded 160 times to commemorate the 160th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

At the event, NBF also announced plans for The Emancipation Bells, a 65-bell tower and community amphitheater to be built in D.C.’s new Bridge District in Southeast. That project is designed to pay “homage to centuries of abolitionist history leading up to the Emancipation Proclamation,” according to a news release from NBF.



In a letter of support for the project, the District’s delegate in Congress Eleanor Holmes Norton said the new site will be a place for those who live in D.C. and those who visit.

“This new carillon will not only be the first of its kind east of the Anacostia River, but it will also be the first of its kind in our nation. It will be a gathering place to celebrate community, enjoy the beautiful sound of music on bells, and reflect on our shared history,” Norton said.

“I believe it is important to keep the voices of abolitionists alive, voices that still have resonance today. As we approach the 160th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, we must ensure the stories of these heroes are preserved and celebrated for generations to come,” she added.

According to the news release, the arrangement of the 65 cast bronze Emancipation Bells will have a special meaning:

  • A carillon of 52 bells will occupy the east belfry and will be inscribed with the names of prominent Black abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and more. Learn about a carillon.
  • The largest bell in the carillon is tuned to F for ‘freedom’ and will be dedicated to all freedom seekers — those men and women who took control of their own destiny by leaving their enslaver.
  • A ring of 12 peal bells will occupy the west belfry. Each of these bells will be inscribed with the name of a prominent abolitionist, antislavery activist, or ally. Learn about peal bells and change ringing.
  • The largest bell in the entire structure, called The Great Emancipator, will be suspended between the two belfries. It will be tolled during special programming 4x annually: the date the Proclamation was announced, the date the Proclamation took effect, D.C. Emancipation Day, and Juneteenth.
  • The largest bell in the carillon array will be tuned to F for ‘freedom.’

Organizers for The Emancipation Bells say the new community amphitheater will host regular community events and that residents of Wards 7 and 8 are invited to submit artwork in a competition to design the new bells.

They also say scholarships will be made available for those interested in learning how to play the carillon, and grants will be made available for new music written for the vast array of bells.

Learn more about The Emancipation Bells at the NBF website.

Joshua Barlow

Joshua Barlow is a writer, composer, and producer who has worked for CGTN, Atlantic Public Media, and National Public Radio. He lives in Northeast Washington, D.C., where he pays attention to developments in his neighborhood, economic issues, and social justice.

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