Etta Moten Barnett

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Etta Moten Barnett
Etta Moten Barnett.jpg
Moten as Bess in Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, 1943
Etta Moten

(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 (ca. 1918-24; divorced; 3 daughters)
Claude Albert Barnett
(1934–67; his death)

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.


Early years[edit]

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

She attended Western University, a historically black college (HBCU) in Quindaro, Kansas, where she studied music. She completed her education at the University of Kansas, where she earned a B.A. in voice and drama in 1931.[2] Moten became a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, which provided a network throughout her career.[3]


Etta Moten Barnett

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. Moten was cast in the Broadway show Zombie.

On January 31, 1933, 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. 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 "My Forgotten Man" with Joan Blondell). Also in 1933 she stood in for Ginger Rogers by dubbing her singing in Professional Sweetheart.

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, 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 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.[3]

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.[3]

Etta Moten

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. On March 6, 1957 Moten Barnett interviewed Dr. Martin Luther King 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.[4] 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. They were married for 33 years, until his death.[5]


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

Legacy and honors[edit]

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 2008-01-22.
  2. ^ "Singer-actress, KU grad was role model" Archived 2010-07-22 at the Wayback Machine, Wichita Eagle and, July 19, 2010.
  3. ^ a b c d "Etta Moten Barnett bio/selected works". African American Biographies, Vol 10. 2009. Retrieved 2008-01-22.
  4. ^ Dr. Martin Luther King (March 6, 1957). "The Papers of Martin Luther King". Stanford University (Interview: transcript). Interviewed by Etta Moten Barnett. Accra, Ghana. Archived from the original on July 15, 2007. Retrieved 2008-01-22.
  5. ^ "Etta Moten Barnetts: African American Oral History Archive". The Historymaker. 2008. Retrieved 2008-01-22.
  6. ^
  7. ^ "Candace Award Recipients 1982-1990, Page 1". National Coalition of 100 Black Women. Archived from the original on March 14, 2003.

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.

External links[edit]