Scope and Contents
The Bernice Johnson Reagon Collection of the African American Sacred Music Tradition documents the music, and the society, history, and customs from which it emerged. The materials were collected by Dr. Reagon during her tenure as Director of the Program in Black American Culture, Curator, and Curator Emerita at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution (1977-1997). The records span the nineteenth century and greater part of the twentieth century. The collection is important because it allows an understanding of the interconnectivity of African American musical forms. Gospel, Jazz, and Protest Songs document the African experience in America through verse and melody. Dr. Reagon collected photographs, sheet music and other primary and secondary sources chronicling the development of African American sacred music tradition from its birth during the period of slavery through the creation of concert spiritual, gospel music, jazz and the performance of protest song in the century following Emancipation.
The records, which measure approximately six linear feet, contain photographs, sheet music, and what Dr. Reagon calls "cultural files" pertaining to figures in, types of, and history of African American music. The cultural file material formats include book, news and magazine articles, programs, bio-sketches, and music. Information about personalities such as Marian Anderson, La Verne Baker, Dorothy Love Coates, Nathaniel Dett, Thomas Dorsey, Frederick Douglass, Duke Ellington, and the Golden Gate Quartet are contained among the collection materials. Also, there are items on gospel trailblazers such as Charles Tindley, Thomas A. Dorsey, and Rosetta Tharpe. In addition, the collection features materials connected to historians and other scholars who participated in a number of teams Reagon organized to carry out specific research initiatives in sacred music traditions and the larger African American experience.
The collection, which was arranged by Dr. Reagon and staff, consists of four parts: a cultural file, a sheet music file, a photography file, and a negative file. The cultural file includes primary documents such as programs from historic performances, personal letters, press releases, and programs from scholarly conferences as well as secondary materials such as journal articles, excerpts from books, and biographical notes. The photography (and negative) files contain photographs of performers and scholars who have participated in the evolution of the African American sacred music tradition. The sheet music file encompasses songbooks and individual pieces of music.
Series 1: Cultural Files, ca. 1836 - 1994: The bulk of materials date from the 1920's to the 1960's. Four document boxes of materials which relate to prominent personalities, groups and events that contributed to the popularization of African American sacred music. Also included in this series is information on slave songs, the Civil War, the Black Church, the Civil Rights Movement, and popular music culture.
Series 2: Sheet Music, ca. 1901 - 1993: The bulk of materials date from the 1900's to the 1950's. Three document boxes of sacred music sheets and songbooks including concert, spiritual, and gospel arrangements. Also included are a few popular compositions, some written by classically trained musicians.
Series 3: Negative Files, ca. 1880's - 1993: The bulk of the materials ranges from 1940 to 1965. Two boxes document boxes of photographic negatives depicting gospel music performers and performances. Included .are contact sheets and individual negatives of varying sizes.
Series 4: Photographs and Illustrations, ca. 1822 - 1993: The bulk of materials range from the 1900's to the 1980's. Eight document boxes of photographs featuring gospel performers, performances, sacred rituals, sacred organizations, Civil Rights activity , and gospel music conferences (primarily black and white).