Etta Moten Barnett Biography
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.
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.'"
Films (as Etta Moten)
(Voice) Ladies of the Big House, 1932.
Gold Diggers of 1933, 1933.
Flying Down to Rio, 1933.
Plays (as Etta Moten)
Fast and Furious, 1931.
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.