Bernice Johnson Reagon

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Bernice Johnson Reagon
Background information
Birth name Bernice Johnson
Born (1942-10-04) October 4, 1942 (age 74)
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 Bernice Johnson on October 4, 1942) is a song leader, composer, scholar, and social activist, who was a founding member of the SNCC Freedom Singers in the Albany Movement.[1][2] in Georgia. In 1973 she founded the all-black female a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, based in Washington, D.C.[3] Reagon, along with other members of the SNCC Freedom Singers, realized the power of collective singing to unify the disparate groups who began to work together in the 1964 Freedom Summer protests in the South.[4]

“After a song,” Reagon recalled, “the differences between us were not so great. Somehow, making a song required an expression of that which was common to us all.... This music was like an instrument, like holding a tool in your hand.”[5]

The Albany Singing Movement became a vital catalyst for change through music in the early 1960s protests of the Civil Rights era.[5][6] Reagon devoted her life to social justice through music via recordings, activism, community singing, and scholarship.[7][8][9][10]

She earned her Ph.D. from Howard University and is an emeritus faculty member in the History Department at The American University.[11] She has also been a scholar-in-residence at Stanford[12] and received an honorary doctorate of music from Berklee College of Music.[13]

Early life and education[edit]

Bernice Johnson was the daughter of Beatrice and J.J. Johnson, a Baptist minister. She 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 as an activist, she briefly attended Spelman College.

Later, she returned to Spelman to complete her undergraduate degree in 1970. She received a Ford Foundation fellowship to do graduate study at Howard University, where she was awarded the Ph.D. degree in 1975.[14]



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 also served as a field secretary. The Freedom Singers were organized by Cordell Reagon in 1962. This group was the first of the civil rights singers to travel nationally. The singers realized that singing helped provide an outlet and unifier for protestors struggling with mob behavior and police brutality. Thanks to her roles with SNCC and the Freedom Singers, Reagon became a highly respected song leader during the Civil Rights Movement.

Activist James Forman later said-"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.'"[7][15]


In 1974, Reagon was appointed as 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.[14][16]


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). She was the conceptual producer and narrator of the Peabody Award-winning radio series, Wade in the Water, African American Sacred Music Traditions.[citation needed]

Reagon's work as a scholar and composer is reflected in her 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 several albums on Folkways Records including Folk Songs: The South, Wade in the Water, and Lest We Forget, Vol. 3: Sing for Freedom.[17]

In 1973 Reagon founded the six-member, all-female a cappella group entitled '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 toured internationally, including to 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 strong effects that music has had on the Civil Rights Movement.[citation needed]


Personal life[edit]

In 1963 she married Cordell Reagon, another member of The Freedom Singers.[20] Their 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 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.[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Freedom Singers". New Georgia Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2017-01-29. 
  2. ^ "Albany Movement". New Georgia Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2017-01-29. 
  3. ^ "Message from the Founder - Sweet Honey in the Rock®". Sweet Honey in the Rock®. Retrieved 2017-01-29. First public appearance of Sweet Honey In The Rock at Howard University’s W.C. Handy Blues Festival. The group is Bernice Johnson Reagon, Carol Maillard, Louise Robinson, and Mie. 
  4. ^ Hayes, Eileen M. (2010-10-01). Songs in Black and Lavender: Race, Sexual Politics, and Women's Music. University of Illinois Press. p. 66. ISBN 9780252091490. 
  5. ^ a b Giddings, Paula J. (2009-10-06). When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America. Harper Collins. p. 279. ISBN 9780061984921. 
  6. ^ Harris, Norman (1988). Connecting Times: The Sixties in Afro-American Fiction. Jackson and London: Univ. Press of Mississippi. pp. 136–7. ISBN 9781617033704. 
  7. ^ a b "Bernice Johnson Reagon: Civil Rights song leader | Smithsonian Folkways". Retrieved 2017-01-29. 
  8. ^ "Bernice Johnson Reagon | Album Discography | AllMusic". AllMusic. Retrieved 2017-01-29. 
  9. ^ "Bernice Johnson Reagon | Americans Who Tell The Truth". Retrieved 2017-01-29. 
  10. ^ Reagon, Bernice Johnson (2001). "If You Don't Go, Don't Hinder Me - University of Nebraska Press". University of Nebraska Press. Retrieved 2017-01-29. 
  11. ^ "Emeritus Faculty with the History Department at American University". Retrieved 2017-01-29. 
  12. ^ "Bernice Johnson Reagon in residence". Stanford University. Retrieved 2017-01-29. 
  13. ^ "Bernice Johnson Reagon on Freedom Fighting | Berklee College of Music". Retrieved 2017-01-29. 
  14. ^ a b Hatfield, Edward A. (2007-11-28). "Bernice Johnson Reagon". New Georgia Encyclopedia. Georgia Humanities Council. Retrieved December 10, 2012. 
  15. ^ "Bernice Johnson Reagon on 'This Little Light of Mine'". 2013-05-03. Retrieved 2017-01-29. 
  16. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2015-09-19. Retrieved 2016-01-19. 
  17. ^ Bernice Johnson Reagon Discography on Folkways[permanent dead link]. Retrieved on 2011-12-09.
  18. ^ "CHRONICLE". The New York Times. June 26, 1991. 
  19. ^ The Heinz Awards, Bernice Johnson Reagon profile Archived October 20, 2016, at the Wayback Machine.. Retrieved on 2011-12-09.
  20. ^ Hopkinson, Natalie "Solid Rock". Retrieved August 30, 2016. [dead link]. Crisis, The. Sep/Oct 2003
  21. ^ 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.

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