For more than a half century, Bernice Johnson Reagon has been a major cultural voice for freedom and justice. As artist, singer/composer/producer, as author, as a cultural historian with a specialty in the history of African American culture; and as a teacher: in live solo presentations, in the classroom, as a museum curator, and her documentary productions in radio, films and audio recordings; Reagon has helped to shape the field of public history.
Born in Southwest Georgia, the third child of eight, her parents Rev Jesse and Beatrice Johnson grounded their family with a linked partnership of home, school and church. While in college during the early 60s, Reagon’s activism as a student leader during the Albany Civil Rights Movement resulted in her being jailed and expelled from school. Her singing power came to attention as a songleader in the Albany Georgia mass meetings, she joined the initial national tour of the SNCC Freedom Singers, organized by Cordell H. Reagon. Completing her studies at Spelman College, with graduate work at Howard University, she formed the internationally renowned African American women’s a cappela ensemble Sweet Honey In The Rock. She led this group for 30 years until retirement early 2004.
She is Curator Emeritus at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and Professor Emeritus of History at American University. Reagon work as scholar, producer, score composer includes a number of documentary projects among them: Music consultant for: the Emmy Award winning Series, Eyes on the Prize (Blackside/PBS), We Shall Overcome (Ginger Productions); the Peabody Award-winning radio series, Wade in the Water: African American Sacred Music History (conceptual producer and host, National Public Radio and Smithsonian Institution); the Peabody Award-winning PBS film series on slavery: Africans in America (score composer, WGBH TV). She is composer and librettist of the Robert Wilson Opera, The Temptation of St. Anthony, (2003 premiere in Germany). Reagon, with her strongest collaborator, her daughter, composer/bandleader/singer,Toshi Reagon and jazz pianist/composer Jeri Allen, was the score composer of the HBO Peabody award winning film Beah: A Black Woman Speaks, produced by Jonathan Demme and LisaGay Hamilton.
Reagon’s pioneering work as a scholar, teacher, author, and artist have been recognized with the Heinz Award for the Arts and Humanities (2003), the Leeway National Award for Women in the Arts (2000), the Presidential Medal for contribution to public understanding of the Humanities (1995), and the MacArthur Fellowship (1989), and the 2009 Howard University Distinquished Alumni Award in Humanities, Music, and Civil Rights.