During the civil rights movement, Bernice Johnson Reagon distinguished herself as a committed student activist and gifted musician whose powerful voice led freedom songs in her native Albany and beyond. Since then, she has made significant contributions to the field of African American cultural history as a historian at the Smithsonian Institution and at American University, both of which are located in Washington, D.C.
Reagon was born on October 4, 1942, in Albany to Beatrice Wise and Jessie Johnson. As the daughter of a Baptist minister, she received a religious upbringing and was impressed at an early age by the power of song in the Black choral tradition. In 1959 she entered Albany State College (later Albany State University), where she studied music and became politically active, serving first as secretary of Albany’s junior chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and later becoming a student leader in the Albany Movement.
Despite objections from the NAACP’s regional office, Reagon participated in demonstrations sponsored by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1961, a decision that resulted in her arrest and expulsion from Albany State. She transferred to Spelman College in Atlanta the following fall but withdrew after only one semester to join the Freedom Singers, an Albany-based choral group that toured the country to raise money for SNCC’s civil rights campaigns.
A romance with fellow Freedom Singer Cordell Reagon led to marriage, and in 1964, she left the group to give birth to the couple’s daughter, Toshi. A son, Kwan Tauna, was born in 1965.
In 1966 Reagon founded the Harambee Singers, an African American woman a cappella ensemble that was part of the Black Consciousness Movement, an antiapartheid activist movement that began in South Africa in the 1960s. When her marriage ended in divorce in 1967, Reagon returned to Spelman College and completed her undergraduate degree in 1970. A year later, with a Ford Foundation Fellowship, she moved to Washington, D.C., to enter the graduate program at Howard University, and completed her Ph.D. degree in 1975. While at Howard, she became the vocal director (1971-76) of the Black Repertory Theater in Washington.
Reagon formed Sweet Honey in the Rock, an a capella ensemble of African American women singers, in 1973. Since its inception, the group has earned international renown for its sophisticated harmonies, socially conscious repertoire, and captivating performances. Reagon retired from the group in 2004, after thirty years.
In 1974 Reagon joined the staff at the Smithsonian Institution, where she worked for almost twenty years. First as a cultural historian in the Division of Performing Arts/African Diaspora Project and later as a curator at the National Museum of American History, Reagon helped expand the museum’s mission to include a greater focus on minority contributions to American life.
In 1989 Reagon received a MacArthur Foundation grant and thereafter devoted her time to the study of African American sacred song and worship traditions. Her research resulted in the 1994 production Wade in the Water, a twenty-six-hour Peabody Award–winning radio series sponsored by the Smithsonian and National Public Radio. Reagon’s other production credits include contributions to Eyes on the Prize (1987), the landmark PBS documentary series, and We Shall Overcome (1989), an Emmy Award–winning PBS documentary. She also contributed to the film score for Africans in America (1998), a Peabody Award–winning four-film series on slavery in the United States.
Reagon received an appointment as distinguished professor of history at American University in 1993. She was named curator emeritus at the Smithsonian in 1994 and professor emeritus at American University in 2003.