Bernice Johnson Reagon

Bernice Johnson Reagon
Background information
Birth name Bernice Johnson
Born (1942-10-04) October 4, 1942
Origin Dougherty County, Georgia
United States
Genres A cappella
Occupation(s) singer, songwriter, scholar
Instruments vocals
Years active 1966–present
Associated acts Sweet Honey in the Rock, Toshi Reagon

Bernice Johnson Reagon (born October 4, 1942) is a singer, composer, scholar, and social activist, who founded the a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock in 1973.

Early life and education

The daughter of Baptist minister J.J. and Beatrice Johnson, Bernice was born and raised in southwest Georgia, where music was an integral part of life. She entered Albany State College in 1959 (since July 1996 Albany State University) where she began her study of music. She also became active in the local NAACP chapter and then the SNCC. After being expelled from Albany State because of an arrest for her civil rights activism, she attended Spelman College briefly. Later, she returned to Spelman to complete her undergraduate degree in 1970. She then received a Ford Foundation fellowship to study at Howard University, where she was awarded the Ph.D. degree in 1975.[1]



Reagon was an active participant in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. She was a member of The Freedom Singers, organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) for which she was also a field secretary. The Freedom Singers were organized by Cordell Reagon in 1962. This group was the first to travel nationally. The singers realized that singing helped provide an outlet for protestors when dealing with issues like mobs and police brutality. Thanks to her roles with SNCC and the Freedom Singers she became a very respected song leader during the Civil Rights Movement. She had people like James Forman say-"I remember seeing you lift your beautiful black head, stand squarely on your feet, your lips trembling as the melodious words 'Over my head, I see freedom in the air' came forth with an urgency and a pain that brought out a sense of intense renewal and commitment of liberation. And when the call came to protest the jailings, you were up front. You led the line. Your feet hit the dirty pavement with a sureness of direction. You walked proudly onward singing 'this little light of mine, 'and the people echoed, 'shine, shine, shine.'"


In 1974, Reagon was appointed a cultural historian in music history at the Smithsonian Institution, and was later a curator of music history for the National Museum of American History. In 1989, she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. She held an appointment as Distinguished Professor of History at American University (AU) in Washington DC from 1993 to 2003. Reagon has since been named Professor Emerita of History at AU, and holds the title of Curator Emeritus at the Smithsonian.[2][1]


Reagon is a specialist in African-American oral history, performance and protest traditions. She has served as music consultant, producer, composer, and performer on several award-winning film projects - notably PBS television productions such as Eyes on the Prize (1987) (in which she also appeared) and Ken Burns' The Civil War (1990) - and was the conceptual producer and narrator of the Peabody Award-winning radio series, Wade in the Water, African American Sacred Music Traditions.

Reagon's work as a scholar and composer is reflected in publications on African-American culture and history, including: a collection of essays entitled If You Don’t Go, Don’t Hinder Me: The African American Sacred Song Tradition (University of Nebraska Press, 2001); We Who Believe In Freedom: Sweet Honey In The Rock: Still on the Journey, (Anchor Books, 1993); and We'll Understand It Better By And By: Pioneering African American Gospel Composers (Smithsonian Press, 1992).

Reagon has recorded on several albums on Folkways Records including Folk Songs: The South, Wade in the Water, and Lest We Forget, Vol. 3: Sing for Freedom.[3]

In 1973 Reagon founded the six member all female a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock. In addition to Reagon, the women in the original group were: Ysaye Maria Barnwell, Nitanju Bolade Casle, Shirley Childress Johnson, Aisha Kahil, and Carol Maillard. The only instrument they used was their voices along with shekere and tambourine. They have traveled all over to places like Europe, Japan, Mexico, and Australia. The group's fan base is of different ethnic backgrounds, religions, and sexual orientations. Reagon's musical roots come from the rural South Baptist Church. She has advocated "music's informational and transformative power to ask" and the impact music has had on the Civil Rights Movement.


In 1991 Reagon received a Candace Award from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women.[4] In 1995 she received a Charles Frankel Prize for her contributions to the public understanding of the humanities. The award was presented at the White House by President Bill Clinton. Other notable awards include the 9th Annual Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities given in 2003 by the Heinz Family Foundation.[5] In April 2009 Reagon received an honorary doctoral degree from the Berklee College of Music. In 2000 she won the First National Leeway Laurel Award at the Leeway Foundation in Philadelphia.


In 1963 she married Cordell Reagon, another member of The Freedom Singers.[6] Her daughter, Toshi Reagon, is also a singer-songwriter. Reagon believes that "Life's challenges are not supposed to paralyze you, they're supposed to help you discover who you are." She also believes that black people have created their own world. African Americans had to use what ever territory at their disposal to create a people. And that territory wasn't land it was culture. She also said there was so much done because black culture was the only thing black people could call their own. That is why she feels black culture is the most powerful in the world.[7]

See also


  1. 1 2 Hatfield, Edward A. (2007-11-28). "Bernice Johnson Reagon". New Georgia Encyclopedia. Georgia Humanities Council. Retrieved December 10, 2012.
  2. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2015-09-19. Retrieved 2016-01-19.
  3. Bernice Johnson Reagon Discography on Folkways. Retrieved on 2011-12-09.
  4. "CHRONICLE". The New York Times. June 26, 1991.
  5. The Heinz Awards, Bernice Johnson Reagon profile Archived October 20, 2016, at the Wayback Machine.. Retrieved on 2011-12-09.
  6. Hopkinson, Natalie "Solid Rock". Retrieved August 30, 2016.. Crisis, The. Sep/Oct 2003
  7. Brown, Leonard (11 August 2010). John Coltrane and Black Americas Quest for Freedom: Spirituality and the Music. Oxford University Press. pp. 23–24. ISBN 0199779740. Retrieved 18 January 2016.

5. Buffalo, Audreen. "Sweet Honey: A Cappella Activists." Ms 03 1993: 24. ProQuest. Web. 17 May 2014 .

6. Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon 1999 Folk Alliance International Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient. Perf. Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon. Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon 1999 Folk Alliance International Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient. Folk Alliance International, 2 Sept. 2011. Web. 12 May 2014.

7.Reagon, Bernice J. "Bernice Johnson Reagon." : Music: Freedom Singers. Songtalk Publishing. Web. 13 May 2014.

8. "Bernice Johnson Reagon." Smithsonian Folkways. Smithsonian Institution, n.d. Web. 16 May 2014.

External links

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