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Enfield church bell, donated by enslaver, now rings to commemorate freedom on Juneteenth

At the top of the Enfield Congregational United Church of Christ hangs a bell that tells a story as complicated as America’s own history. Once, it rang for the typical church and town affairs; to mark baptisms and weddings, but in the last four years, its sound has become inclusive, especially to honor the enslaved people who once lived in Enfield.

Rev. Greg Gray, the church's leader for the past four years, said his church’s history is deep.

“This is the oldest institution in town,” Gray said. “We were the original town hall. All of the original records of the town are original church records. There was no Enfield before there was us.”

The scent of musty beams opens a portal to the past atop the endless stairs at the church's peak.

Captain Ephraim Pease donated the bell in 1794. He was a founding member of both the church and the town, but he also owned enslaved people. Recast in 1830 due to a crack, the bell still bears Pease's name.

“They moved here from Salem, Massachusetts,” Gray said. “If you look at the original census, you will see that it lists out all of the family members, and then it says plus two slaves. Like we get no names or anything where they were from.”

Enfield boasts a rich history. Powder Hollow in Hazardville, a part of Enfield, provided 40% of all the gunpowder used during the Civil War.

Reverend Dr. Greg Gray of the Enfield Congregational, United Church of Christ shares with Connecticut Public reporter about the significance of the church’s Juneteenth Bell ringing.
Ayannah Brown
/
Connecticut Public
Rev. Greg Gray of the Enfield Congregational, United Church of Christ shares with a Connecticut Public reporter the significance of the church’s Juneteenth Bell ringing.

“They sold gunpowder in the Civil War, people will tell you — to the Union officers — but they also sold it to the Confederacy,” Gray said. “There's actually the story of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, that he came and spent the night here in Enfield as he was working on obtaining gunpowder for the southern troops as well. That's the way capitalism works during a war, is that you sell to both sides.”

Juneteenth, celebrated annually on June 19, commemorates the emancipation of enslaved African Americans.

We remember that the bell was donated by a slave owner and that on Juneteenth, we are ringing the bell for freedom, that we are using the master's tools to unmake the master's house,” Gray said.

In 2020, following George Floyd's death and global protests against racial injustice, the bell rang for each minute the police officer kneeled on Floyd’s neck. The bell has also been rung to honor victims of COVID-19.

Gray said it’s a part of his church's commitment to an "Open and Affirming" stance, emphasizing inclusivity and attracting a diverse congregation from neighboring towns like Suffield, Somers, and South Windsor, as well as Massachusetts communities such as Agawam and Feeding Hills. This mission includes inclusivity observances for Pride Month and support of mental health awareness initiatives.

Maricarmen Cajahuaringa is a journalist with extensive experience in Latino communities' politics, social issues, and culture. She founded Boceto Media, a digital Spanish-language newspaper based in Connecticut. Maricarmen holds a Bachelor's in Social Work from Springfield College, and a Master's in Journalism and Media Production from Sacred Heart University. As a reporter for Connecticut Public, she is dedicated to delivering accurate and informative coverage of the Hispanic/Latino population in the region. Maricarmen is an experienced and passionate journalist who strives to bring a voice to the stories of her community.