The bell in what is now the Sir Christopher Wren Building has sounded at significant moments throughout the history of William & Mary and the nation. This is such a time.
In recognition of the hardships caused by the coronavirus pandemic and in honor of the health care providers and essential workers on the front lines of the pandemic, President Katherine A. Rowe has directed the bell to be rung on April 16 at 7:30 p.m. She will briefly address the William & Mary community, the bell will toll and members of the W&M Choir will sing “Shenandoah,” followed by a time of quiet reflection.
Even with campus buildings closed and many Americans under stay-at-home orders, the Wren Bell symbolizes William & Mary’s resilience, just as it has for centuries.
As university classes ceased during the Civil War’s aftermath, the bell rang to begin the new academic year and to summon students to the grammar school that remained open on campus.
W&M President Benjamin Stoddert Ewell understood the symbolism of the bell and oversaw its ringing. Before the war, the task often would have been carried out by enslaved people who also served meals, cleaned campus buildings and maintained grounds and gardens, among countless other tasks.
Recent research associated with W&M’s Lemon Project revealed that, after the war, two black men, Malachi Gardner and Edloe Washington, accompanied Ewell on his almost daily visits to William & Mary and rang the bell.
Today, ringing the 650-pound bronze bell is a treasured William & Mary tradition. On the last day of classes, graduating students ring it to commemorate their time at the university. When alumni return to campus for Homecoming & Reunion Weekend in October, many ring the Wren Bell once again.
On May 4, 2007, Queen Elizabeth II partook in the tradition and rang the bell while visiting William & Mary as part of the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, the first permanent English-speaking settlement in North America.
The bell also marks solemn occasions.
At the annual Sunset Ceremony during Homecoming, the ringing of the bell and a moment of silence honors alumni, students, faculty and friends of the university who passed away during the year.
The bell also has tolled in remembrance of fallen soldiers, as it did in 2014 to honor two service members who died in Iraq and Afghanistan.
When the bell rings on April 16 to commemorate those we have lost and the hardships caused by COVID-19, it carries with it a long history of overcoming tribulation. It serves as a reminder that even in times of sorrow, William & Mary’s steadfast community spirit endures.
To join the April 16 moment of silence, go to events.wm.edu.