Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder of the award-winning vocal group Sweet Honey in the Rock, has hit the cultural jackpot again. Today the Heinz Family Foundation is giving the Washington-based singer its annual citation for excellence in the arts and humanities and a $250,000 stipend.
At a time when grants to individual artists are scarce, Reagon says she is sometimes stunned at her good fortune. In 1989 Reagon received a MacArthur Fellowship that carried a $275,000 prize.
"It is sort of a wonderful surprise. It is not the only time I have gotten awards like this from places I didn't know existed," said the 60-year-old activist, who also won the National Endowment for the Humanities' Charles Frankel Prize in 1995. "I think about when I was younger, thinking about what my work would be. This was not on my trajectory that at some time in my life people would say, 'We recognize your work and, in recognizing it, we want to honor your work.' "
For 40 years, through her music, writing and research, Reagon has been raising issues about the freedom of women and men throughout the world. She started with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Freedom Singers in the South during the 1960s civil rights movement.
In 1973, she founded the women's a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock while working as the music director of the old D.C. Black Repertory Theater Company. For decades she has worked at the Smithsonian, where she founded its program in black American culture and is now curator emeritus.
"She has brought passion, intelligence and eloquence to her every endeavor, and our nation has been ennobled by her groundbreaking contributions," said Teresa Heinz, chairman of the foundation. "Through song and scholarship alike, she has proved herself an influential force, stirring the cause of civil rights and helping preserve the history and culture of African Americans."
Next January, Reagon announced, she will be leaving the singing group. "I am stepping aside from that role, but Sweet Honey will go on. This year we are working on how Sweet Honey continues without the founder."
The artist/activist has not yet decided what to do with the Heinz award. But the MacArthur grant enabled her to introduce to a wider audience the congregational singing that has inspired her career. Part of that effort was "Wade in the Water: African-American Sacred Music Traditions," a production of National Public Radio and the Smithsonian that became the basis for a traveling museum exhibition and won a Peabody Award.