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Bernice Johnson Reagon

Bernice Johnson Reagon, singer and song leader, civil rights activist, scholar, advisor, Festival participant and staffer, Folkways artist, colleague, and friend, has had a profound influence upon the Center and its work.

Bernice was born in Albany, Georgia, in 1942. She recorded her first solo album, Folk Songs: The South, with Folkways Records in 1965. As she wrote: “My history was wrapped carefully for me by my fore-parents in the songs of the church, the work fields and the blues. Ever since this discovery I’ve been trying to find myself, using the first music I’ve ever known as a basic foundation for my search for truth.”

In the 1960s, she was a member of the SNCC Freedom Singers, at the forefront of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. James Foreman wrote about Bernice: “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.’”

For decades, Bernice has made groundbreaking contributions to the arts, the humanities, and social struggles. Bernice’s quest for artistic excellence, knowledge, and social justice has been closely connected to the daily social and religious lives, aspirations, and aesthetic and performance traditions of the Black Belt South. This brought her into contact and collaboration with artists and communities across the world, extending her artistic vision and informing her creativity and voice.

Bernice’s Smithsonian career began in 1969. Ralph Rinzler, whom she had met through the Newport Folk Festival and the Highlander School, invited her to develop and curate a 1970 Festival program, Black Music Through the Languages of the New World. In 1972 Bernice began a collaboration with Gerald Davis, the Festival’s assistant director, and other scholars to develop the unprecedented African Diaspora program (1973-76), which she describes was “presented as a part of a world family of culture based in Africa and extending to the Caribbean and Latin America to the United States.”

Bernice then founded and directed the Program in Black American Culture at the National Museum of American History, presenting performances, exhibitions, workshops, and symposia. As curator for the museum’s Division of Community Life, Bernice examined the need for collections and exhibitions representing the African-American experience. She advised scores of community groups, museums, scholars, and educators.

Bernice has chronicled African-American religious, social, and cultural history through her artistry and scholarship. She is the founder-director of the Harambee Singers (1968-70) and founder-artistic director of Sweet Honey in the Rock (1970-present). Her books include Black People and Their Culture and We’ll Understand It Better By and By. Her Ph.D. dissertation work at Howard University informed Voices of the Civil Rights Movement, first published by Smithsonian Recordings and then reissued by Smithsonian Folkways.

Bernice received two George F. Peabody Awards as principal scholar, conceptual producer, and host of the path-breaking Smithsonian Institution and National Public Radio series Wade in the Water: African American Sacred Music Traditions, and as producer, composer, and performer for the WGBH CD recording Africans in America. She is also the recipient of the Charles E. Frankel Prize, Presidential Medal, for outstanding contributions to public understanding of the humanities, a MacArthur Fellows Program award, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change Trumpet of Conscience Award, among others.

Bernice’s association with the Center has continued through participation in numerous Festivals and special Smithsonian programs such as the Birthday Party on the Mall, the Millennium celebration, and a cultural exchange program with the Soviet Union. She, with Sweet Honey in the Rock, performed on the Grammy-winning benefit album Folkways, A Vision Shared: A Tribute to Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly. Bernice has served as a member of the Center’s Advisory Council and Smithsonian Folkways Editorial Board.

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Bernice Johnson Reagon performs with Sweet Honey in the Rock in Michigan, 1977. Photo by Diana Davies.

“As a singer and activist in the Albany Movement, I sang and heard the freedom songs, and saw them pull together sections of the Black community at times when other means of communication were ineffective. It was the first time that I knew the power of song to be an instrument for the articulation of our community concerns.”
— Bernice Johnson Reagon