African American singer and actress Etta Moten Barnett (1901–2004) was perhaps best known for her signature performance in the title role of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. But her long and fascinating life was filled with other remarkable accomplishments, such as being the first African American performer to sing at the White House and breaking color barriers in Hollywood. She later became active in civic pursuits, represented U.S. presidents in Africa, and was a noted patron of the arts.
Sang Her Way Through School
Barnett was born on November 5, 1901, in Weimar, Texas. She was the only child of Ida Norman Moten and the Reverend Freeman F. Moten. Her father was an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) minister and her mother was a schoolteacher. Because young ministers were frequently transferred, Barnett went to various elementary and secondary schools in Texas, California, and Kansas. Her vocal talent evidenced itself early on, and she was singing in the church choir (as well as teaching Sunday school) by the age of ten. Barnett’s mother constructed a pink and white box so that her daughter would be tall enough to comfortably participate, and Barnett remembered it fondly in a 1942 interview cited by Jet. “To this day, I can’t remember anything quite so wonderful as standing on that box singing hymns out over the heads of people.”
Barnett continued to sing as a teenager, both in school and church choirs. During that time, she also made her professional debut with the Jackson Jubilee Singers. The group consisted of a pianist, four male singers, and two female vocalists, and traveled to small towns on the Chautauqua circuit in the summers. It was an excellent way for Barnett to develop her instrument and earn money for college simultaneously.
College, however, was put on hold, as Barnett married Curtis Brooks when she was just seventeen. The couple moved to Oklahoma and had four children (one died at birth) before Barnett spurned convention by divorcing her husband six years later. Even more astonishing for the time, she left her children with their doting grandparents in Kansas City and enrolled as one of only 150 African American students out of the 6,000–member student body at the University of Kansas at Lawrence.
In order to help finance her studies, Barnett reunited with the Jackson Jubilee Singers in the summers and conducted a church choir on the weekends back in Kansas City. At the university, she studied drama and voice, along with education (as a sort of insurance). She had her own radio program at school, and formed a vocal quartet. And despite the obstacles and racism that African Americans faced in those days, Barnett’s talents were encouraged and much admired. Her senior recital drew a crowd of 1,000 people and resulted in an invitation to join the prestigious Eva Jessye Choir in New York City. So after Barnett received her BFA in 1931 at the age of 30, she headed for the Big Apple.
Broke New Ground
On her way to New York, Barnett stopped in Chicago, Illinois. There, she met the founder of the Associated Negro Press, Claude Barnett. He had many connections through his work with the wire service, and was very helpful to her throughout her career. Barnett later recalled to the Hannibal Courier–Post, “My whole life has been about good friends, and being in the right place at the right time. And the newspapers were very good to me because Claude Barnett was a fine and very well–liked man. Wherever I went, I had letters of introduction to somebody.” The couple married in 1934.
Her future husband was not her sole admirer, however. Only two weeks after Barnett’s arrival in New York, Eva Jessye (the choir director) commended the young singer’s talents to Broadway. Barnett first appeared in the short–lived Fast and Furious, and then was cast in Zombie. Zombie ran for two months in New York before going on the road. The show closed in California in 1932, and Barnett was poised to make her mark in Hollywood.
Barnett began her Hollywood career dubbing vocals for such established actresses as Barbara Stanwyck and Ginger Rogers. Then, she made a splash with her groundbreaking appearance in Gold Diggers of 1933. Barnett was cast as an attractive war widow, rather than a domestic worker, an unprecedented event for a black actress of the time. (She did not initially receive screen credit for the role, however). Delighted to witness the toppling of a despised stereotype, black audiences lined up to see the picture and the African American press hailed Barnett as “The New Negro Woman.”
Barnett’s next movie was 1933’s Flying Down to Rio, in which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers appeared together for the first time. Barnett sang “The Carioca,” which was nominated for an Academy Award, and received her first screen credit. Indeed, her popularity was such that the studio often gave her top billing when the film was shown in African American neighborhoods. Both movies gave Barnett the prominence that earned her a place on the lecture circuit, and even attracted the attention of U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1934, she broke boundaries once again when she became the first African American woman to perform at the White House, singing “Forgotten Man” from Gold Diggers of 1933, at Roosevelt’s birthday party.
Courtesy: Encyclopedia of World Biography
Porgy and Bess playbill dated November 1942. Opera starred Etta Moten Barnett and Todd Duncan and played at the Studebaker Theater in Chicago.
Etta Moten and Claude Barnett posed in front of their private African art collection at their home in Chicago, 1960s.