Finding Aids to Oral Histories in the Smithsonian Institution Archives
Reagon, Bernice Johnson, 1942- interviewee
Oral History Interview with Bernice Johnson Reagon, 1986
Bernice Johnson Reagon was born October 4, 1942. Her father, Reverend Jessie Johnson was a Baptist minister. In her youth, Dr. Reagon participated in community church services and sang at funerals. It was in this environment that she learned black traditional music, which established the foundation for her later artistic career.
In 1959, she entered Albany State College, where she majored in music. Discouraged by her inability to master the piano, she changed her major to biology in her second year. In 1961, during her junior year at Albany she was suspended for participating in civil rights demonstrations. During the next five years she was active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and further contributed to the movement as a freedom singer, field researcher, and organizer of community-based events.
In 1962, she married Cordell Hull Reagon, a SNCC field worker from Nashville, Tennessee. The couple had two children, Toshi and Kwan Reagon. They were divorced in 1967.
Dr. Reagon received a B.A. in history from Spellman College in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1975, she completed her Ph.D. in American History from Howard University. Her research emphasized Afro-American history and cultural and oral history methodologies.
Professionally she has emphasized two different but complimentary careers: music and the study of black culture and the African diaspora.
Bernice Johnson Reagon recorded her first album as a member of the Freedom Singers in 1963. In 1964 she recorded her first solo album, "Songs of the South," on Folkways Recording. In 1973 she formed her a cappella singing group, Sweet Honey in the Rock. The group has performed nationwide and has several recordings on the Flying Fish label.
Dr. Reagon has written, researched, and lectured extensively in Afro-American history and culture, including the history of the civil rights movement and also traditional black music forms. An ardent proponent of the African diaspora movement, she has been instrumental in the spreading the concept of black linkages and a common African culture worldwide.
Dr. Reagon began working with the Smithsonian Institution in the 1960's as a field researcher, and with several projects relating to black culture. In 1974 she joined the Division of Performing Arts and was instrumental in creating the African Diaspora program for the Festival of American Folklife. The bicentennial festival of 1976 was the zenith of her efforts. Dr. Reagon traveled internationally, promoting the concept of African diaspora and recruiting black artists for the festival. In 1976, she transferred to the National Museum of American History as the Director and Cultural Historian for the Program in Black American Culture. In 1988, she was named Curator of the Division of Community Life at the National Museum of American History.
The Oral History Program is part of the Smithsonian Institution Archives. The purpose of the program is to conduct interviews with current and retired members of the Smithsonian staff who have made significant contributions, administrative and scholarly, to the Institution. The project's goal is to supplement the published record and manuscript collections in the Archives, focusing on the history of the Institution and contributions to the increase and diffusion of knowledge made by its scholars.
The Reagon interviews were accessioned into the Oral History Collection because of her significant role in the development of the Festival of American Folklife and African-American scholarship at the Smithsonian.
The Bernice Johnson Reagon Interviews were conducted during two sessions between in 1986. John Warren Jackson, a student in Dr. Pamela M. Henson's Oral History Seminar at the University of Maryland, conducted the interviews as his class research project. The interviews consist of approximately 3 hours of tape, 76 pages of transcript, and occupy 1.00 cubic feet of shelf space.
The interviews may only be used by researchers with the written permission of Bernice Johnson Reagon, so please contact the Archives in advance to request permission.
This collection is indexed under the following access terms. These are links to collections with related topics, persons or places.
- Reagon, Bernice Johnson, 1942-
- Jackson, John Warren interviewer
- Sweet Honey in the Rock (Musical group)
- National Museum of American History (U.S.)
- John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
- National Museum of American History (U.S.)
- American University (Washington, D.C.)
Physical Characteristics of Materials in the Collection
Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 9612, Oral History Interview with Bernice Johnson Reagon