Etta Moten Barnett
Actress and Singer

Etta Moten Barnett, (Nov. 5, 1901 - Jan. 2, 2004) was an African American actress and singer (contralto). She was born in Weimar, Texas, the daughter of a Methodist minister. She married one of her high school teachers and had three daughters, but the marriage faltered.


Etta Moten then attended Western University in Quindaro, Kansas and then completed her education at the University of Kansas, graduating with a Bachleors of Art in voice and drama, then moved to New York City, where she was a soloist with the Eva Jessye Choir. She was cast in the Broadway show Zombie.

On January 31, 1933, she became the first black star to perform at the White House. She appeared in two musical films in 1933, Flying Down to Rio (singing "The Carioca") and Gold Diggers of 1933. She married Claude Barnett, the head of the Associated Negro Press. She was cast by George Gershwin as a replacement Bess in the Broadway revival of Porgy and Bess in 1942, and was also in the touring company.

She stopped performing in 1952, because of vocal problems. She subsequently was involved with the National Council of Negro Women, the Chicago Lyric Opera and the Field Museum. She was also host of a radio show in Chicago. She died of pancreatic cancer at Chicago's Mercy Hospital at the age of 102.

Ten Things You Should Know About Etta Moten Barnett

After her first marriage dissolved, she moved (with her three daughters) to her parents home in Kansas where she graduated from the University of Kansas (in voice and drama) in 1931.

She was the very first to break the stereotypical portrayal of African-Americans in the movies by appearing as a widowed housewife in Golddiggers of 1933.

She moved to NYC where she got a leading role on Broadway in a production called "Zombie." She later dubbed songs for actresses that couldn't sing.

After her appearance in Gold Diggers of 1933, she was touted as "The New Negro Woman" by the African-American press. Her first screen credit was in Flying Down to Rio where she played a Brazilian singing "The Carioca" while Fred Astair and Ginger Rogers danced.

George Gershwin wrote the character "Bess" in Porgy and Bess with Etta in mind. He planned for her to star in the original production in 1935, but she refused at first because the role was for a soprano and she sang contralto. In 1942, she finally accepted the role and starred in the Broadway production which went on tour until 1945. It was to become her signature role. Lena Horne, whose grandfather took her to see Porgy and Bess later said that Etta Barnett was her "role model."

She became the first Black woman to sing at the White House (1934) at FDR's birthday celebration.
After Porgy and Bess she performed internationally at concerts and music festivals, her last performance being a Danish concert in 1952. She later hosted a Chicago radio program called "I Remember When."

That same year she performed at the white house, she married Claude Barnett, founder of the Associated Negro Press. Their marriage lasted until Mr. Barnett's death 33 years later.

Etta Barnett represented the U.S. Government on missions to ten African nations and was given honorary degrees from at least 7 Universities and Colleges.

She considered her 100th birthday (attended by Harry Belafonte, Studs Terkel, and about 400 others) as her life's high water mark so no elaborate funeral arrangements were made. She suggested that donations could be given to Chicago's Second Presbyterian Church Restoration Fund.

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