Etta Moten Barnett

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Etta Moten Barnett
Etta Moten Barnett (13270182663).jpg
Born(1901-11-05)November 5, 1901
DiedJanuary 2, 2004(2004-01-02) (aged 102)
OccupationActress, singer, U.S. cultural representative in Africa
Years active1929–1952
Spouse(s)Curtis Brooks
(m. c. 1918; div. 1924)
(m. 1934; died 1967)

Etta Moten Barnett (November 5, 1901 – January 2, 2004) was an American actress and contralto vocalist, who was identified with her signature role of "Bess" in Porgy and Bess.[1] She created new roles for African-American women on stage and screen. After her performing career, Barnett was active in Chicago as a major philanthropist and civic activist, raising funds for and supporting cultural, social and church institutions.[2]


Early years[edit]

Etta Moten was born in Weimar, Texas, the only child of a Methodist minister, Rev. Freeman F. Moten, and a teacher, his wife, Ida Norman Moten.[1] She started singing as a child in the church choir.

Etta's family put great importance on education, as her parents made sure she was enrolled in good schools no matter where they moved.[3] Etta attended Paul Quinn College's secondary school in Waco, Texas.[4] She then attended Western University, a historically black college (HBCU) in Quindaro, Kansas, where she studied music. To pay her tuition, she joined a quartet on Topeka's WREN radio, performed on the Chautauqua circuit, and spent summers with the Jackson Jubilee Singers. She completed her education at the University of Kansas, where she earned a B.A. in voice and drama in 1931.[5] She became the first student to present a recital in the campus's newly constructed Hoch Auditorium. Moten became a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, which provided a network throughout her career.[6]


Etta Moten Barnett's first job began at Lincoln University. She received a teaching contract, which was short lived when her father informed her that should we be moving to New York. Moten moved to New York City, where she first performed as a soloist with the Eva Jessye Choir. Jessye was a groundbreaking collaborator with Virgil Thomson and George Gershwin. In 1931, she performed in Fast and Furious ; a musical revue written by Zora Neale Hurston.[4] Moten was cast in the Broadway show Zombie.

On January 31, 1934, Moten became one of the rare black stars to perform at the White House since Marie Selika Williams performed for President Rutherford B. Hayes and First Lady Lucy Webb Hayes in 1878. Moten performed The Forgotten Man from her movie Gold Diggers of 1933 for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt at his birthday celebration.[3] The song echoed Roosevelt's campaign promise that he would remember the "forgotten man." She performed in two musical films released in 1933: Flying Down to Rio (singing "The Carioca") and a more substantial role as a war widow in the Busby Berkeley musical Gold Diggers of 1933 (singing the emotive "My Forgotten Man" with Joan Blondell). Also in 1933 dubbed the singing of Theresa Harris in Professional Sweetheart. Up until this point, the representation of black women in movies was limited to maids or nannies (the Mammy archetype). Moten made a breakthrough with her roles in these movies and is generally recognized as the 1st black woman to do so.[7] Etta Moten Barnett crossed over decades before that music-industry phrase existed. Disturbed by subtle but persistent racial discrimination, Etta persevered, believing she had to be “twice as good to get anywhere at all.”

Gershwin discussed her singing the part of "Bess" in his new work Porgy and Bess, which he had written with her in mind. She was concerned about trying a role above her natural range of contralto. In the 1942 revival, the part of Bess was rewritten. She did accept the role of "Bess", but she would not sing the word "nigger", which Ira Gershwin subsequently wrote out of the libretto. Through her performances on Broadway and with the national touring company until 1945, she captured Bess as her signature role.[1]

She stopped performing in 1952 owing to vocal problems after doctors found a cyst on her vocal chords that required surgery. After her husband, Claude Barnett, died in 1967, she lived in Chicago, where she became active in the National Council of Negro Women, the Chicago Lyric Opera and the Field Museum. She was also active in the DuSable Museum, and the South Side Community Art Center.[6]

In addition to activities with civic organizations, Moten Barnett served as a board member of both The Links, a service organization for African-American women, and her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha. She was also active in International Women's Year activities and events in the 1980s.[6]

Moten in 1936

Cultural missions[edit]

Etta Moten Barnett hosted a radio show in Chicago called I Remember When before the United States government appointed her to be a representative on cultural missions to ten African nations.[1] Dozens of recordings of I Remember When are available at the Library of Congress and at the Schomburg Library in New York City. Etta's marriage to Claude Barnett gave her the opportunity to travel to Africa. Claude, as the head of the Associated Negro Press, along with Etta and other members of the organization visited the continent frequently to gain African news information for the ANP to include in their issues.[8] On March 6, 1957, Moten Barnett interviewed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Accra, Ghana, where they were both attending the celebration of Ghana's independence from Great Britain—she as the wife of Claude Barnett, a prominent member of the official U.S. delegation headed by Vice President Richard Nixon; and King, fresh from the Montgomery Bus Boycott, as a man interested in the liberation of oppressed people globally, but with no official place in Ghana's Independence Day festivities.[9] The recording of this conversation, conducted in a Ghanaian radio studio where Moten Barnett was gathering recordings for her Chicago broadcasts, is also available at the Library of Congress and the Schomburg Library.

Personal life[edit]

About 1918 she married Curtis Brooks, who had been a teacher of hers in high school. They had three daughters: Sue, Gladys and Etta Vee, but divorced after six years of marriage.

In 1934, while living and working in New York, Moten married a second time, to Claude Albert Barnett, the head of the Associated Negro Press. The two were happily married for 33 years, until his death in 1967.[10]

Etta Moten Barnett died of pancreatic cancer at Chicago's Mercy Hospital in 2004, aged 102.

Legacy and honors[edit]

  • 1943 – University of Kansas, citation of merit
  • 1958 – National Association of Business and Professional Women, citation for service
  • 1973 – African Center of Atlanta University, citation for contributions to Afro-American music
  • 1974 – WAIT, citation for contributions to City of Chicago
  • 1979 – Inducted into Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, noted as: Actress, Concert Artist[11]
  • 1983 – Candace Award from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women[12]
  • 2001 - Inducted into the Emily Taylor Center for Women and Gender Equity, University of Kansas[13]
Honoris causa degrees





  1. ^ a b c d John Troesser (February 1, 2005). "Ten Things You Should Know about Etta Moten Barnett". Texas Escapes. Retrieved January 22, 2008.
  2. ^ Hine Clark, Darlene (1997). Facts on File Encyclopedia of Black Women in America Music. New York, New York: Facts on File Books. pp. 63–65. ISBN 0-8160-3424-9.
  3. ^ a b Barford, Mary Florence, "INTIMACY AND AUTONOMY: TWENTIETH CENTURY AMERICAN WOMEN AND THE QUEST FOR SELF-REALIZATION" (2015). Open Access Dissertations. 1088.
  4. ^ a b “World War Looms.” The Rise and Fall of the Associated Negro Press: Claude Barnett's Pan-African News and the Jim Crow Paradox, by GERALD HORNE, University of Illinois Press, Urbana; Chicago; Springfield, 2017, pp. 51–64. JSTOR, Accessed 22 Nov. 2020.
  5. ^ "Singer-actress, KU grad was role model" Archived 2010-07-22 at the Wayback Machine, Wichita Eagle and, July 19, 2010.
  6. ^ a b c d "Etta Moten Barnett bio/selected works". African American Biographies, Vol 10. 2009. Retrieved January 22, 2008.
  7. ^ "Pioneering Black Actress, Singer, Dies at 102; Etta Motten Barnett "Played Dignified Role in Pictures"." Los Angeles Sentinel, Jan, 2005, pp. A.13. ProQuest 369340400
  8. ^ “Claude Barnett.” American Journalists: Getting the Story, by Donald A. Ritchie, Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 199.
  9. ^ King, Martin Luther Jr. (March 6, 1957). by Etta Moten Barnett.pdf "Interview by Etta Moten Barnett" (PDF) (Interview: transcript). Interviewed by Etta Moten Barnett. Accra, Ghana: Stanford University | Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. Retrieved September 15, 2020. {{cite interview}}: Check |url= value (help)
  10. ^ Etta Moten Barnett recalls her life with Claude Barnett (February 4, 1993). "Etta Moten Barnett Biography". The HistoryMakers. Retrieved September 15, 2020.
  11. ^ "Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame Archives". Archived from the original on July 11, 2019. Retrieved September 15, 2020. (note: click on "Inductees" image 3 of 5, and "Inductees & Honorees Bios 1974–1993" images 110 & 116 of 295)
  12. ^ "Candace Award Recipients 1982–1990". National Coalition of 100 Black Women. p. 1. Archived from the original on March 14, 2003.
  13. ^ "Emily Taylor Center Induction Article" (PDF). 2001.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)

Further reading[edit]

  • Southern, Eileen (1997). The Music of Black Americans: A History (Third ed.). New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-97141-4.
  • Vernon, Ann (1997). Etta Moten Barnett: A Kansas City Tribute.

External links[edit]