Guide to the Bernice Johnson Reagon Collection Of The African American Sacred Music Tradition, circa 1822 - 1994
Portions of this collection are digitized

Collection ID:
Richardson, Deborra
Reagon, Bernice Johnson, 1942-
circa 1822-1994
Physical Description:
6.55 Cubic feet
17 boxes
The collection documents the customs and culture of black gospel song and its performance in 19th- and 20th-century America. Dr. Reagon collected photographs, sheet music, and other primary and secondary sources chronicling the development and legacy of this medium, from the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement, from blues to Gospel to classical to jazz. Among the subjects included in this collection are trailblazers such as Charles Tindley, Thomas A. Dorsey, Rosetta Tharpe, Duke Ellington, and Nathaniel Dett. Noted performers are the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the Harmonizing Four, the Hampton University Choir, and the Chick Webb Orchestra.

Scope and Contents
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).

Biographical / Historical
Biographical / Historical
Bernice Johnson Reagon, noted vocalist, musician, curator, historian, writer and civil rights activist, provided the impetus for the Smithsonian Institution's research into African American sacred song and music traditions from 1977 until ca. 1997.
Dr. Reagon was born October 2, 1942 to a rural Georgia Baptist minister (Jesse Johnson) and his wife (Beatrice Wise) whose religious influence is evident in her research and performance style. She came of age during the 1960's Civil Rights era, and was a Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Freedom Singer. The SNCC Freedom Singers were an African American group whose vocal singing style was an integral element in the civil rights struggles. The Singers traveled throughout the country performing protest songs such as "We Shall Not Be Moved" and "This Little Light of Mine". Their songs reflected the Black church theology of the era, emphasizing freedom, long denied, but fervently sought by civil rights activists and the people they represented.
At one march, Reagon was jailed along with hundreds of other demonstrators. This experience taught her the importance of music as a political act. Reagon reflected on this in the book
We Who Believe in Freedom: Sweet Honey in the Rock
... She founded
Sweet Honey in the Rock
, a highly regarded female a capella ensemble dedicated to performing traditional music of the African diaspora in 1973, started working full time at the Smithsonian Institution in 1974, and earned a Ph. D. from Howard University in 1975.
Reagon's life has combined political activism with music and cultural history. She began directing the Smithsonian's Program in Black American Culture in 1976. In 1988 she became a curator at the National Museum of American History and after retirement in 1993 continued her work in African American songs of protest and sacred traditions as a curator emeritus at the Smithsonian and a distinguished professor at American University.
Dr. Reagon has authored and edited numerous publications including,
We'll Understand It Better By and By: African American Pioneering Gospel Composers
, (Smithsonian Press, 1992) and
We Who Believe in Freedom: Sweet Honey in the Rock
Still on the Journey
(Anchor Books, 1993). She was principal scholar, producer and host of the National Public Radio series "Wade in the Water: African American Sacred Music Traditions (1994). Dr. Reagon has served as consultant composer and performer for several film and video projects including programs for PBS,"Eye on the Prize" (Blackside Productions) and "We Shall Overcome" (Ginger Productions), and has won a number of awards for her scholarship and pioneering work (MacArthur Fellowship, 1989; the Charles Frankel Prize,1995 and the Isadora Duncan award, 1996).

Ida Jones
Immediate Source of Acquisition
Collection donated by Bernice Johnson Reagon.
Custodial History
The collection was created as a resource database for research in gospel music history and the radio series and exhibit Wade In the Water: African American Sacred Song and Worship Traditions of the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries. It was transferred from the Division of Cultural History (now Division of Cultural and Community Life) to the Archives Center in June, 1998.
Processing Information
Collection processed by Ida Jones, June 23,1999; revised by Deborra Richardson, December 1999.

Using the Collection
Conditions Governing Access
Collection is open for research.
Conditions Governing Use
Collection items available for reproduction, but the Archives Center makes no guarantees concerning copyright restrictions. Other intellectual property rights may apply. Archives Center cost-recovery and use fees may apply when requesting reproductions.

More Information

Keywords table of terms and types.
Keyword Terms Keyword Types
Gospel music Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Dett, Nathaniel Personal Name Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Ellington, Duke, 1899-1974 Personal Name Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Chick Webb Orchestra Corporate Name Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Jubilee Singers Corporate Name Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Harmonizing Four Corporate Name Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Hampton University Choir Corporate Name Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Dorsey, Thomas A. Personal Name Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Tharpe, Rosetta Personal Name Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Tindley, Charles Personal Name Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid

Repository Contact
Archives Center, National Museum of American History
P.O. Box 37012
Suite 1100, MRC 601
Washington, D.C. 20013-7012