Bernice Johnson Reagon


The scholar, singer/songwriter and activist Dr Bernice Johnson Reagon (1942) has played a major role in American and African-American culture for more than half a century. Reagon was born and raised in Southwest Georgia, where she received her grounding in traditional gospel repertoire. In the 1960s, she and her husband, Cordell Hull Reagon, co-founded the Freedom Singers, a musical group within the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) of the American civil rights movement, and began using music as a medium for social and political activism. She led an all-female a capella ensemble, The Harambee Singers, during the same period, known as the Black Arts and Black Power movements (1965-1975).

From 1973 until her retirement in 2004, she led yet another influential female a capella group, Sweet Honey in the Rock. In addition, she provided music for a variety of film, television, video art and theatre productions, including the award-winning documentary Eyes on the Prize (1987-1990) and the feature film Beloved (1999). She also wrote the music and libretto for two operas by director Robert Wilson: The Temptation of St. Anthony (2003) and Zinnias: The Life of Clementine Hunter (2013). Reagon is one of the leading authorities in African American Cultural History. She is the professor emeritus of history at the American University, curator emeritus at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, and served as the Cosby Chair of Fine Arts at Spelman College from 2002 to 2004. She has received a Heinz Award for the Arts and Humanities (2003), a MacArthur Fellowship (1989), the Leeway National Award for Women in the Arts (2000), the Presidential Medal (2005), and the Charles E. Frankel Prize for contributions to the public understanding of the humanities.