Moten, Etta 1901–
Etta Moten 1901–
After establishing herself as an actress on Broadway in the 1930s, Etta Moten became a pioneer in Hollywood by appearing as one of the first black actresses to be cast in a romantic role. As Joy Bennett Kinnon noted in Ebony, “Before Halle Berry and Dorothy Dandridge and even Lena Home, there was Etta Moten, a Black actress defying all the odds as an African American woman and a performer.” Moten worked for some 60 years as an actress and singer, and has since become a prominent cultural and civic leader. Sometimes identified by her married name, Etta Moten Barnett, she is an active, vivacious woman who told Essence in an “aging-gracefully profile” that “I make sure to keep current by talking to young people.”
Born and raised in Texas, Moten married soon after graduating from high school and relocated to Oklahoma. She briefly attended college before moving with her husband, a World War I veteran who established his own business. The couple had three daughters, but divorced after six years. As a black, single mother in her late twenties, Moten made a remarkable decision for the era, to enroll at the University of Kansas to study voice and drama. Leaving her children with her parents, Moten became one of some 150 black students out of a total enrollment of approximately 6,000. When she graduated in 1931, the young woman was urged by her professors to move to New York City, but the practical Moten also had a teaching certificate and a teaching job to fall back on.
While taking the train to New York, Moten had a stopover in Chicago, where she met Claude Barnett. The young man charmed the aspiring actress and gave her letters of introduction to influential people in New York City. Although she asserted that she was not interested in remarrying, the two were soon engaged. Moten proceeded to New York City, where she quickly found work on Broadway; she recalled the experience in the Chicago Tribune, saying, “Doors started to open for me and I was prepared to go through them. I was just lucky.” Moten knew that generally there were limited opportunities for blacks, who were mostly confined to working in black venues. She commented to the Chicago Tribune in 1989, “A black entertainer could go to Europe and do well … but it was the next decade before Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway would
At a Glance…
Born November 5, 1901 in Weimar, TX; daughter of Freeman (a Methodist minister) and Ida Norman Moten; married in the 1920s, divorced after six years; married Claude A. Barnètt in 1934 (died, 1967); children: (first marriage) Sue ish, Etta traylor, Gladys Brooks. Education: University of Kansas, B. Mus. (voice and drama, teaching certificate), 1931; also studied at Northwestern University, School of Speech, 1949-50.
Career: Actress and singer. Made stage and screen acting debut in the early 1930s; performed in concert through the 1950s and 1960s,
Member: National trustee of the National Council of Christians and Jews; national trustee of the African American Institute; trustee of the DuSabie Museum of African American History; member of the women’s boards of the Lyric Opera, the Field Museum, the University of Chicago, and the Chicago Art Institute.
Awards: Honorary degrees from Lincoln University, Northeastern Illinois University, 1981; Atlanta University, 1983; Spelman College, 1985; and University of Illinois at Chicago, 1987. Inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, 1979.
Addresses: Home—3619 Martin Luther King Dr., Chicago, IL 60653.
appear at white theaters in downtown Manhattan.”
Moten was fortunate to promptly get two roles on Broadway. The first was in Fast and Furious, a show that lived up to its name by quickly closing. Her second and more significant part was in the musical Zombie which was set in Haiti. The actress’s other stage work includes plays Sugar Hill and Lysistrata When Moten followed Zombie on tour, it took her to Los Angeles and gave her the opportunity to audition for work in films. She was first heard rather than seen on screen, dubbing songs for Barbara Stanwyck in Ladies of the Big House (1932). Her screen debut in Gold Diggers of 1933 was a far more important performance—even though her name still did not appear in the credits—singing the ballad “My Forgotten Man.”
Moten quickly became a romantic, sexy, black figure on screen, something of an anomaly in the 1930s. Writing for the Chicago Tribune, Paul Galloway explained that Moten “was among the first members of her race, if not the first, to break the stereotype of the black female that had been presented by Hollywood.” Generally, black women were cast as maids and nannies, and were often overweight, motherly figures. Moten was soon cast in another glamorous part, as a Brazilian singer in RKO’s FlyingDown to Rio (1933), a film that featured a newly-paired Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in supporting roles. Wearing fruit in her hair years before Carmen Miranda did the same, Moten sang “The Carioca,” a song that was nominated for an Oscar. Still, Moten was restricted by the casting practices of Hollywood. As Minnette McGhee noted in the Chicago Sun-Times, “Barnett and a few other black actresses were able to avoid … stereotypes when films called for exotic island characters. But they never got to do love scenes, and none could escape the racism.”
In 1934 Moten married Claude Barnett. Continuing to work after her marriage, Moten’s career was boosted by her film appearances, which had attracted the notice of some highly placed individuals. In 1934 she was asked to sing “My Forgotten Man” for President Franklin Roosevelt at his birthday party. Composer George Gershwin had also been impressed by her screen performances and wanted her to star in his new folk opera Porgy and Bess Moten visited Gershwin in his Manhattan apartment, where he played music from the show for her. A mezzo-soprano, Moten asked Gershwin to transpose Bess’s songs from the original soprano range to a lower key. The composer refused, believing that Bess’s part had to be sung as a soprano in order to keep her image as a good bad girl.
Porgy and Bess was, therefore, first produced with Ann Brown in the starring role. The show only ran briefly, however, and in 1942 the score was shortened and Moten was cast as Bess. Now, several years after Gershwin’s death, she agreed to sing the soprano part, despite her earlier concerns. The show ran for six months on Broadway, then toured for another two years in the United States and Canada. Sadly, the strain of repeatedly singing the soprano part did damage to Moten’s voice, necessitating surgical repair. The singer had to rest her voice for four months and sustained permanent damage to her vocal chords. Nevertheless, Moten was able to give concerts during 1950s and 1960s. Her singing career highlights include performing with Duke Ellington and appearing with both the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic.
When Chicago Tribune reporter Pamela Sherrod toured Moten’s Victorian Chicago home, she noted that “Africa is far more evident than Broadway or Hollywood. In every one of Moten’s 14 rooms, the decor is punctuated with masks and sculptures, ivory and good-luck charms from Benin to Zimbabwe.” These items were collected by Moten and her husband in Africa, during a series of trips that began in 1947. The couple attended many independence celebrations and became friends with Kwame Nkrumah and others who were prominent during the African Renaissance. Moten has many fond memories of Africa, numbering them among the many cherished moments from her 33 years of marriage with Claude Barnett. A friend of Booker T. Washington, Barnett was the founder of the Associated Negro Press. Some 25 years after his death in 1967, she commented in the Chicago Tribune, “Truly, no woman ever had as much freedom, cooperation and support as I did with him.”
In addition to her achievements as an actress and singer, Moten has become an important civic and cultural leader, especially in Chicago, where she has lived for many years. Having seen the changes in race relations made during practically the entire twentieth century, she provides a remarkable perspective on black life in the United States. Commenting on being a black performer traveling in the south, she told the Chicago Tribune: “when you went through the South, you didn’t expose yourself to hurts. You didn’t get thirsty. You didn’t ride public transportation. You rode in cars. You didn’t go where there where signs that said Tor Colored Only.’” But Moten has never dwelled on the hurts she received, for she continued, “When bad things happened, I could pull down the asbestos curtain in my mind that’s fire-proof and sound-proof. It’s bad for my health to dwell on such things. I wouldn’t bury my anger. I might cry it out, and I might not perform if I was badly treated. But I put it out of my memory.”
As she approaches the age of 100, Moten has remained active in a great many organizations including the National Council of Christians and Jews and the African American Institute. In Chicago, she is a trustee of the DuSable Museum of African American History and sits on the women’s boards of the Lyric Opera, the Field Museum, the University of Chicago, and the Art Institute. Moten commented on her full calendar in Ebony when she was 96, joking “I’ve always said that the only difference between a rut and a grave is the depth, and I’m not ready for either one.” For her achievement on stage and screen, and as a champion of civic and cultural issues, she has been recognized with many awards. She has received a host of honors, including at least five honorary degrees, a place in the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, a Living Legend Award from the National Black Arts Festival, and the Order of Lincoln Medallion from the state of Illinois.
Looking back on her career, Etta Moten noted in the Chicago Tribune that “fifty percent of success is ability, and the rest is contacts and initiative.” She certainly has had all of these blessings during a lifetime filled with varied and significant achievements. But Moten does not boast of her accomplishments or dwell on the past, rather she marvels at her continued good fortune. She once reflected in the Chicago Tribune, “The good thing about being 90 is that I can look at what was then and what is now. You have something to compare yourself to and the life you lived, and you appreciate each day you have more than ever.”
Chicago Sun-Times, February 13, 1993, p. 5.
Chicago Tribune, February 7, 1989; October 11, 1992; February 7, 1993; April 18, 1993.
Ebony, October 1997, p. 54.
Essence, January 1994, p. 55.
—Paula Pyzik Scott
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