Barnett, Etta Moten

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Etta Moten Barnett

African American singer and actress Etta Moten Barnett (1901–2004) was perhaps best known for her signature performance in the title role of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. But her long and fascinating life was filled with other remarkable accomplishments, such as being the first African American performer to sing at the White House and breaking color barriers in Hollywood. She later became active in civic pursuits, represented U.S. presidents in Africa, and was a noted patron of the arts.

Sang Her Way Through School

Barnett was born on November 5, 1901, in Weimar, Texas. She was the only child of Ida Norman Moten and the Reverend Freeman F. Moten. Her father was an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) minister and her mother was a schoolteacher. Because young ministers were frequently transferred, Barnett went to various elementary and secondary schools in Texas, California, and Kansas. Her vocal talent evidenced itself early on, and she was singing in the church choir (as well as teaching Sunday school) by the age of ten. Barnett's mother constructed a pink and white box so that her daughter would be tall enough to comfortably participate, and Barnett remembered it fondly in a 1942 interview cited by Jet. "To this day, I can't remember anything quite so wonderful as standing on that box singing hymns out over the heads of people."

Barnett continued to sing as a teenager, both in school and church choirs. During that time, she also made her professional debut with the Jackson Jubilee Singers. The group consisted of a pianist, four male singers, and two female vocalists, and traveled to small towns on the Chautauqua circuit in the summers. It was an excellent way for Barnett to develop her instrument and earn money for college simultaneously.

College, however, was put on hold, as Barnett married Curtis Brooks when she was just seventeen. The couple moved to Oklahoma and had four children (one died at birth) before Barnett spurned convention by divorcing her husband six years later. Even more astonishing for the time, she left her children with their doting grandparents in Kansas City and enrolled as one of only 150 African American students out of the 6,000–member student body at the University of Kansas at Lawrence.

In order to help finance her studies, Barnett reunited with the Jackson Jubilee Singers in the summers and conducted a church choir on the weekends back in Kansas City. At the university, she studied drama and voice, along with education (as a sort of insurance). She had her own radio program at school, and formed a vocal quartet. And despite the obstacles and racism that African Americans faced in those days, Barnett's talents were encouraged and much admired. Her senior recital drew a crowd of 1,000 people and resulted in an invitation to join the prestigious Eva Jessye Choir in New York City. So after Barnett received her BFA in 1931 at the age of 30, she headed for the Big Apple.

Broke New Ground

On her way to New York, Barnett stopped in Chicago, Illinois. There, she met the founder of the Associated Negro Press, Claude Barnett. He had many connections through his work with the wire service, and was very helpful to her throughout her career. Barnett later recalled to the Hannibal Courier–Post, "My whole life has been about good friends, and being in the right place at the right time. And the newspapers were very good to me because Claude Barnett was a fine and very well–liked man. Wherever I went, I had letters of introduction to somebody." The couple married in 1934.

Her future husband was not her sole admirer, however. Only two weeks after Barnett's arrival in New York, Eva Jessye (the choir director) commended the young singer's talents to Broadway. Barnett first appeared in the short–lived Fast and Furious, and then was cast in Zombie. Zombie ran for two months in New York before going on the road. The show closed in California in 1932, and Barnett was poised to make her mark in Hollywood.

Barnett began her Hollywood career dubbing vocals for such established actresses as Barbara Stanwyck and Ginger Rogers. Then, she made a splash with her groundbreaking appearance in Gold Diggers of 1933. Barnett was cast as an attractive war widow, rather than a domestic worker, an unprecedented event for a black actress of the time. (She did not initially receive screen credit for the role, however). Delighted to witness the toppling of a despised stereotype, black audiences lined up to see the picture and the African American press hailed Barnett as "The New Negro Woman."

Barnett's next movie was 1933's Flying Down to Rio, in which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers appeared together for the first time. Barnett sang "The Carioca," which was nominated for an Academy Award, and received her first screen credit. Indeed, her popularity was such that the studio often gave her top billing when the film was shown in African American neighborhoods. Both movies gave Barnett the prominence that earned her a place on the lecture circuit, and even attracted the attention of U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1934, she broke boundaries once again when she became the first African American woman to perform at the White House, singing "Forgotten Man" from Gold Diggers of 1933, at Roosevelt's birthday party.

Although her color kept Barnett from becoming a legitimate studio star in the 1930s, she undoubtedly had the requisite charisma, talent, and looks. As good friend Dorothy Johnson explained to the Hannibal Courier–Post, "Etta had a flair for the dramatic. She had such a carriage and stage presence that if she walked into a room and you didn't know her, you would say, 'Who is that?' " Thus, despite the limitations that rampant racism presented, Barnett's prestige and popularity continued to increase.

Porgy and Bess Until Denmark

Legend has it that George Gershwin wrote the role of Bess in his Broadway musical, Porgy and Bess, with Barnett in mind. Whether or not this was the case, he certainly auditioned her for the part in 1935. As the part was written for a soprano, contralto Barnett thought it too high for her. Jet quoted her recollection of the time as, "[Gershwin] told me I was Bess, that I had the verve and the looks he wanted." Nonetheless, Barnett did not play Bess in the original production.

Luckily for posterity, Barnett changed her mind about the role when Porgy and Bess was revived on Broadway in 1942. The part became the one for which she was most famous, and she played it on the Great White Way, and then on tour, until 1945. (After her 1943 performance at the Kansas City Music Hall, her alma mater awarded her its prestigious Citation of Merit). The show was not without its cost, however, as Barnett had a cyst removed from her throat in 1947, and later blamed the strain of singing the soprano role for having damaged her voice.

In addition to Porgy and Bess, Barnett kept busy throughout the 1930s, 1940s, and early 1950s. Other Broadway shows included Sugar Hill and Lysistrata. She also performed in concerts and music festivals all over the United States and in such countries as Canada, Argentina, Brazil, England, and many African nations. Additionally, she stayed active on the lecture circuit, speaking at many black colleges and universities. Barnett's musical career finally wound down in 1952, when she gave her last formal recital in Denmark. But the trailblazing performer was a very long way from retirement.

Happily Married

Barnett's second marriage was a long and active one. Ebony quoted her referring to the match as "a 33–year legal love affair." Claude Barnett was distinguished and highly connected, and the couple forged an activist partnership that blossomed even more as her stage career declined. One of their special interests was Africa, and they made many trips to the continent, both in a private capacity and as representatives of the United States. Among their official visits were trips to the independence ceremonies of Ghana, Nigeria, Zambia, and Lusaka, and a journey to the 1960 inauguration of Ghana's first president. Along the way, they began to compile what was to become one of the largest and finest privately owned collections of African artifacts in the world.

As her husband's health began to fail in the mid–1960s, Barnett started to spend more time closer to their Chicago home. She hosted a radio program entitled "I Remember When with Etta Moten," occasionally sang locally, and immersed herself in such civic outlets as the Chicago Lyric Opera, the DuSable Museum of African–American History, and the National Conference of Christians and Jews. Claude Barnett passed away in 1967, but his saddened widow had miles to go before she slept.

Ever Active

After her husband's death, Barnett continued to be active in civic pursuits and as a patron of the arts. She also maintained her interest in Africa and became more involved in women's issues. Moreover, she remained on the lecture circuit, gave poetry readings, and taught master classes in vocal music. Among the myriad organizations that she belonged to were the Links (a service organization for African American women), the African–American Institute, the Field Museum, and the National Council of Negro Women. Nor did Barnett's tireless efforts go without notice. Her many awards included a 1973 citation for her contributions to Afro–American music (Africana Center at Atlanta University), a 1988 citation for service to Africa (African–American Institute), and honorary degrees from Atlanta University (1976), Spelman College (1983), the University of Illinois (1987), Pennsylvania's Lincoln University (1989), and North Carolina Central University (1989).

Slowing down did not appear to be in Barnett's character. She traveled extensively well into her late 80s and did not give up wearing high heeled shoes until she was 95. Her 100th birthday party was a huge gala that drew over 400 admirers, including author Studs Terkel and singer Harry Belafonte. At that time, she gave her optimistic take on the future to Ebony's Joy Bennett Kinnon. "Honey, I know I've seen so many changes. I know we're heading in the right direction—and I'm willing to wait." When Kinnon asked about the key to Barnett's beauty and longevity, the indefatigable lady cracked, "You have to choose a good grandma and grandpa."

Thus, Barnett's death on January 2, 2004 at 102 was met less with grief, than with a celebration of her life's great value. Her surviving daughter, Sue Ish, told Jet, "She had a full 100 years. She did everything. She often said, 'Life does not owe me one thing.' She didn't miss out on anything. She lived such a full life." Belafonte addressed Barnett's legacy two years earlier for Jet, saying, "She gave Black people an opportunity to look at themselves on a big screen as something beautiful, when all that was there before spoke to our degradation. In her we found another dimension to being Black in our time. She is a true shining star."


Notable Black American Women, Book 1, Gale Research, 1992.


Daily Variety, January 8, 2004.

Ebony, December 2001; March 2004.

Herald (Glasgow, Scotland), January 12, 2004.

Jet, December 3, 2001; January 26, 2004.

Star–Ledger (Newark, NJ), January 8, 2004.


"Etta Moten Barnett, Singer with Style," African–American Registry,–american–history/2351/Etta–Moten–Barnett–singer–with–style (December 17, 2004).

"Kansas City Diva's Music Revived Years Later, Hannibal Courier–Post, February 6, 1998, (December 17, 2004).

Barnett, Etta Moten

views updated

Etta Moten Barnett



Etta Moten Barnett achieved several notable firsts in her long career on the New York stage and Hollywood screen. She rose to fame in the 1930s and was one of the most admired African-American entertainment personalities of her era. Her credits include a long engagement as Bess in the landmark George Gershwin musical Porgy and Bess, but she is also thought to have been the first black woman to play a dignified role in an American film. She died at the age of 102, having recently celebrated her hundredth birthday, at which singer Harry Belafonte paid tribute to her as a pioneer. "She gave black people an opportunity to look at themselves on a big screen," said Belafonte, according to the Times of London, "as something beautiful when all that was there before spoke to our degradation."

Barnett was born on November 5, 1901, in Weimer, Texas. Her father was an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) minister, her mother taught school, and Barnett's earliest performing experiences were in the choir at her father's church. Because of his profession, however, the family moved frequently, and to prevent this from interrupting her education the Motens installed their daughter in a private school in Waco, Texas, with her tuition paid by a scholarship she won for voice. Around 1914 the family settled in Los Angeles, and she joined them there. She finished high school in Kansas City, Kansas.

After high school, Barnett joined the Jackson Jubilee Singers, a gospel group that was popular in Kansas. At the age of 17 she wed her former teacher, Curtis Brooks, and they settled in Oklahoma and became the parents of three daughters. The marriage ended after six years, and Barnett's parents cared for the little girls so that she could enter the University of Kansas at Lawrence, where she was one of 150 blacks on a 6,000-student campus. Rejoining the Jackson Jubilee Singers to pay her tuition, she gained renown as a talented drama and voice student even before her 1931 graduation.

Barnett headed to New York City to become a member of the Eva Jessye Choir in Harlem. Jessye was the first African-American woman to achieve international distinction as a professional choral conductor, and recommended her talented soloist to Broadway producers. Barnett's first professional theater role came in Fast and Furious, a black-centered musical that had a two-night run in 1931. A year later, Barnett appeared in Zombie for its two-month run, and then went on the road with it. When it closed in California later in 1932, she decided to audition for some screen roles.

Barnett's first job in Hollywood was dubbing vocals for Barbara Stanwyck in a 1932 film, Ladies of the Big House. She had a much more impressive role in the Busby Berkeley musical, Gold Diggers of 1933, when she was cast as a war widow. In one of the musical's most stirring numbers she sang "Forgotten Man," a war widow's lament, along with several other cast-mates. At the time, African-American women were relegated to roles as domestic servants, and her appearance was a notable one. "It was not even a solo," noted her Times of London obituary, for "she shared the song with a number of white singers but that was the point: until then black actresses had been largely restricted to background roles as maids and eye-rolling, overweight nannies. Now here was a black woman presented on an equal footing with whites, and a sexy, sophisticated black woman at that."

In her next film, Flying Down to Rio, Barnett played a Brazilian singer in the 1933 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers romantic comedy. Wearing a fruit-laden headdress, she sang "The Carioca," which was nominated for an Academy Award for best song. By then, Barnett was well known in the African-American press thanks to her achievements, and was often given top billing when the movies played in black neighborhood theaters. In 1934 she wed Claude Barnett, publisher of the Associated Negro Press news service, whom she had met in Chicago on her way to New York City in 1931.

In 1934, Barnett became the first African American ever to perform at the White House, when Eleanor Roosevelt invited her to sing "Forgotten Man" at a birthday celebration for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. She went on to host her own radio show out of San Francisco, "Etta Moten Sings," and discussed with composer George Gershwin the possibility of starring in his new opera, Porgy and Bess, which blended European traditions with African-American musical forms. Gershwin reportedly wrote the role of Bess with Barnett in mind, but she was leery of taking the part because it required a soprano—a higher key of voice than her trained contralto—and she worried about the potential damage to her vocal cords; Gershwin refused to lower the key for her. Seven years after the opera's rather inauspicious Broadway debut in 1935, Barnett agreed to take the role in a 1942 revival that was considerably shorter than the original running time. This time, the opera was a critical and commercial hit, and ran for months. Barnett went on the road with it, but in the end the Bess soprano part did harm her voice, and she underwent surgery to remove a throat cyst in 1947.

Barnett wound down her singing career over the next few years with a few notable concert engagements with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. She spent the next several years traveling extensively with her husband, and they made many trips to Africa, including ones in which they served as part of official U.S. delegations to independence celebrations or presidential inaugurations for newly black-ruled nations like Ghana, Nigeria, and Zambia. Along the way, the Barnetts amassed one of the most important collections of African art in private hands.

At a Glance …

Born November 5, 1901 in Weimer, TX; died of pancreatic cancer, February 20, 2004, in Chicago, IL; daughter of Freeman F. (a minister) and Ida (a teacher; maiden name, Norman) Moten; married Curtis Brooks (a teacher), c. 1918 (divorced, c. 1924); married Claude Barnett (a publisher), 1934; children: (with Brooks) Sue, Gladys, and Etta Vee. Education: University of Kansas, BFA, 1931; graduate courses at Northwestern University, 1949–50.

Career: Member of the Jackson Jubilee Singers, Kansas, c. 1917–18 and c. 1924–31, and of the Eva Jessye Choir, New York City, after 1931; stage actor, 1931–52; film actor, 1932–52; hosted radio program "Etta Moten Sings" in the 1930s and a program for WMAQ/NBC, Chicago, in the 1960s; visited several African countries as part of official U.S. delegations in the 1950s and '60s.

Awards: University of Kansas, citation of merit, 1943; National Association of Business and Professional Women, citation for service, 1958; African Center of Atlanta University, citation for contributions to Afro-American music, 1973; WAIT, citation for contributions to City of Chicago, 1974; inducted into Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, 1979; recipient of honorary degrees from Atlanta University, 1976, Spelman College, 1983, University of Illinois, 1987, Lincoln University (Pennsylvania), 1989, and North Carolina Central University, 1989.

Widowed in 1967, Barnett spent the remainder of her years in Chicago. She was active well into her seventies in various civic and cultural organizations in the city, including the Chicago Lyric Opera, the Field Museum, the DuSable Museum, and the South Side Community Arts Center. She was a board member of both the Links, a service organization for African-American women, and her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha. She was also involved in International Woman's Year activities and events in the 1980s. Her hundredth birthday celebration was held in Chicago in 2001, and festivities surrounding the day included an award presented by Halle Berry at the Chicago International Film Festival for its tribute, "Black Women in Film—From Etta to Halle." She died on January 2, 2004, at the age of 102. There was no funeral, per her instructions, for she wanted the centennial birthday celebration as her fitting finale. Her surviving daughter, Sue Ish, said that her mother never trumpeted her achievement on the Hollywood screen as a black female who did not appear in a maid or "mammy" costume. "She was given credit for changing it," Ish told Jet, "but Mother said, 'I didn't change it. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time because we had young producers and direc-tors in Hollywood who wanted to change it.'"

Selected works

Films (as Etta Moten)

(Voice) Ladies of the Big House, 1932.
Bombshell, 1933.
Gold Diggers of 1933, 1933.
Flying Down to Rio, 1933.

Plays (as Etta Moten)

Fast and Furious, 1931.
Zombie, 1932.
Porgy and Bess, 1942.



Encyclopedia of World Biography Supplement, Vol. 25, Thomson Gale, 2005.

Notable Black American Women, Book 1, Gale, 1992.


Daily Variety, January 8, 2004, p. 14.

Ebony, October 1997, p. 54; December 2001, p. 62; March 2004, p. 30.

Jet, January 26, 2004, p. 12.

Times (London, England), January 10, 2004, p. 50.