Nisha Rathode (Editor)

Bernice Johnson Reagon

Updated on
Share on FacebookTweet on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on Reddit
Birth name  Bernice Johnson
Name  Bernice Reagon
Years active  1966–present

Instruments  vocals
Genres  A cappella
Spouse  Cordell Reagon (m. 1963)
Bernice Johnson Reagon The Songs are Free Bernice Johnson Reagon and African
Born  October 4, 1942 (age 73) (1942-10-04)
Origin  Dougherty County, Georgia United States
Occupation(s)  singer, songwriter, scholar
Role  Singer ·
Albums  River of Life, Bernice Reagon; Folk Songs: The South
Parents  J.J. Johnson, Beatrice Johnson
Education  Howard University, Spelman College, Albany State University
Similar People  Toshi Reagon, Carol Lynn Maillard, Ysaye Maria Barnwell, Len Chandler, Aisha Kahlil

Bernice johnson reagon vocal group we are climbing jacob s ladder

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. in Georgia. In 1973 she founded the all-black female a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, based in Washington, D.C. 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.


Bernice Johnson Reagon Bernice Johnson Reagon b 1942 New Georgia Encyclopedia

“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.”

Bernice Johnson Reagon wwwbucknelleduimagesDeptsCommunication2011R

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

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

Bernice johnson reagon in conversation

Early life and education

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.


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.'"


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.


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.

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.

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.


  • In 1991 Reagon received a Candace Award from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women.
  • 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. 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.
  • Personal life

    In 1963 she married Cordell Reagon, another member of The Freedom Singers. 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.


    Bernice Johnson Reagon Wikipedia