Bernice Johnson Reagon

Bernice Johnson Reagon Biography

Singer, Songwriter, Activist, Civil Rights Activist (1942–)
African-American musician, historian and teacher Bernice Johnson Reagon became a prominent participant in the Civil Rights Movement via her political songs.


Bernice Johnson Reagon was born on October 4, 1942, outside of Albany, Georgia. She became involved in the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960s, rising to prominence with her powerful political songs. Reagon later achieved professional success with her musical contributions to award-winning films, and became a distinguished history professor at American University in Washington, D.C.

Early Life and Education

Bernice Johnson Reagon was born on October 4, 1942, outside of Albany, Georgia, to parents Beatrice and Reverend Jessie Johnson. She began her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s while a student at Albany State College.

After her arrest at a demonstration resulted in her expulsion from Albany State, Reagon transferred to Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. However, she withdrew after just one semester at her new school to join the Freedom Singers, a group that toured the country to fundraise for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and other civil rights campaigns.

In 1965, Reagon utilized her talent and passion for using song as a communicative voice to record her first solo album, Folk Songs: The South. The following year, she was one of the founders of the Harambee Singers in Atlanta that supported the Black Consciousness Movement. She re-enrolled at Spelman College in 1967, and completed her undergraduate degree in 1970.

After receiving a Ford Foundation fellowship, Reagon entered the graduate history program at Howard University in Washington, D.C., in 1971. During her time at Howard, she served as vocal director of the DC Black Repertory Theater and formed an all-female, African-American a cappela ensemble called Sweet Honey In The Rock. She graduated in 1975 with a Ph.D.

Career Success

Reagon's work has been prominently featured on film, television and radio. She created Wade in the Water: African American Sacred Music Traditions, a 26-show series produced by National Public Radio and the Smithsonian Institution, which aired in 1994 and won a Peabody Award. She contributed to the award-winning documentary series Eyes on the Prize (1987) and acted as the primary composer for the Peabody Award-winning documentary film series Africans in America: America's Journey Through Slavery (1998). She also worked on the music for the feature film Beloved (1998), based on the novel by Toni Morrison and starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover, as well as the Emmy Award-winning We Shall Overcome (2006).

In addition to her successful music career, Reagon earned renown as a teacher and scholar. She became professor emeritus of history at American University in Washington, D.C., and curator emeritus at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. She also was the Cosby Chair of Fine Arts at Spelman College from 2002 to 2004.

Reagon has received numerous honors throughout her career, including a MacArthur fellowship (1989), the Presidential Medal for contributions to public understanding of the humanities (1995), the Leeway Laurel Award (2000) and the Heinz Award for the Arts and Humanities (2003).

Personal Life

Reagon married fellow Freedom Singers member Cordell Reagon and gave birth to their daughter, Toshi, in 1963. Their son, Kwan Tauna, was born the following year. The couple divorced in 1967.

Reagon, who resides in Washington, D.C., continues to document, teach and create African-American music and history to provide a voice to those struggling to be heard in society.

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