Woman Making History #4: Bernice Johnson Reagon


Bernice Johnson ReagonThe first entertainer listed on the history-making women poster, as well as the first living woman listed, is the awesome Bernice Johnson Reagon. I know of Reagon in her capacity as the founder of and one of the strongest voices in the amazing African-American a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, but her work with Sweet Honey is only the tip of the iceberg.

Bernice Johnson Reagon was born in 1942 in Albany, Georgia. She entered Albany State College in 1959, but was expelled in 1961 after being arrested while protesting with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). She then briefly attended Spelman College, before quitting to join the Freedom Singers civil rights music group. She spent the remainder of the 1960s bearing her two children, daughter Toshi (also an accomplished musician and kick-ass woman) and son Kwan Tauna, and recording and releasing two solo albums. During this time period, she also began her study of traditional African American folk music and story telling.

Johnson Reagon then finished her degree in non-Western history at Spelman College and became involved in black nationalism. During the first years of Sweet Honey in the Rock (formed in 1973), she earned her doctorate in in history at Howard University, becoming Dr. Johnson Reagon.

Over the course of the next three decades, Johnson Reagon was involved in multiple black pride and African American history activities. Her work with Sweet Honey continued, and the group toured, put on festivals, and released many albums (and are continuing to do so today). She started work with the Smithsonian Institutions as a cultural historian in 1974, and in 1983 was promoted to curator at the National Musuem of American History, where she had previously begun the musuem's program in Black American Culture. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, she was appointed professor emeritus at American University and won a MacArthur Fellowship.

Johnson Reagon was also involved in many well-known radio, television, and film projects dealing with African-American history and culture, including the Eyes on the Prize series, NPR's Wade in the Water, the television series We Shall Overcome, and the film Beloved.

Now in her 60s, Johnson Reagon has retired from Sweet Honey in the Rock. However, she has continued her work in African-American culture and music in the 2000s, most recently writing music and libretto for the play The Temptation of St. Anthony, playing some concerts with her daughter, Toshi Reagon, and lecturing.

To hear examples of the musical work of Bernice Johnson Reagon and Sweet Honey in the Rock, please go here and here.

Bernice Johnson Reagon 2006 Bio Statement
Sweet Honey in the Rock website
PBS African American World

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