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Etta Moten Barnett

Moten as Bess in Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, 1943
Born Etta Moten
November 5, 1901(1901-11-05)
Weimar, Texas,
United States
Died January 2, 2004 (aged 102)
Chicago, Illinois,
United States
Occupation Actress
Years active 1933
Spouse(s) Claude Barnett
(1934–1967) (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

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

She attended Western University, an 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. Moten became a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., which provided a network throughout her career.[2]


Moten moved to New York City, where she first performed as a soloist with the Eva Jessye Choir. Jessye was also an alumna of Western University's music school and became a respected choral director in New York. 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 the first black star to perform at the White House. 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).

Gershwin discussed with Moten Barnett 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". Through her performances on Broadway and with the national touring company until 1945, she captured Bess as her signature role.[1]

Moten Barnett stopped performing in 1952 because of vocal problems. After her husband's death 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.[2]

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.[2]

She was host of a radio show in Chicago called I Remember When. The US government appointed Etta Moten Barnett as its representative on cultural missions to ten African nations.[1] In March, 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.[3]

Personal life

About 1918 she married Curtis Brooks, one of her former high school teachers. They had three daughters: Sue, Gladys and Etta Vee. They divorced after six years. In 1934, while living and working in New York, Moten married a second time, to Claude Barnett, the head of the Associated Negro Press. They were married for 33 years, until his death.[4] Moten Barnett died of pancreatic cancer at Chicago's Mercy Hospital at the age of 102.

Legacy and honors

  • 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, 1974
  • 1979 - Inducted into Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame[2]
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. ^ a b c d e "Etta Moten Barnett Biography Selected works". African American Biographies, Vol 10. 2009. Retrieved 2008-01-22.  
  3. ^ Dr. Martin Luther King. Interview with Etta Moten Barnett. The Papers of Martin Luther King (transcript). Stanford University. Accra, Ghana. March 6, 1957. Retrieved on 2008-01-22.
  4. ^ "Etta Moten Barnetts: African American Oral History Archive". The Historymaker. 2008. Retrieved 2008-01-22.  

Further reading

  • Southern, Eileen (1997). The Music of Black Americans: A History (Third ed.). New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0393971414.  

External links


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