September 29, 2023

Know Your History: Etta Barnett

Meet groundbreaking actress and activist Etta Barnett this week in “Know Your History!”

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

On January 31, 1934, 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. Moten performed The Forgotten Man from her movie Gold Diggers of 1933 for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt at his birthday celebration. The song echoed Roosevelt’s campaign promise that he would remember the “forgotten man.” 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 Berkely musical Gold Diggers of 1933 (singing the emotive “My Forgotten Man” with Joan Blondell). Also, in 1933 dubbed the singing of Theresa Harris in Professional Sweetheart. Up until this point, the representation of black women in movies was limited to maids or nannies (the Mammy archetype). Moten made a breakthrough with her roles in these movies and is generally recognized as the 1st black woman to do so. Etta Moten Barnett crossed over decades before that music-industry phrase existed. Disturbed by subtle but persistent racial discrimination, Moten persevered, believing she had to be “twice as good to get anywhere at all.”

Gershwin discussed her singing the part of “Bess” in his new work, Porgy and Bess, which he wrote with her in mind. She was concerned about trying a role above her natural range of contralto. In the 1942 revival, the part of Bess was rewritten. 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.

She stopped performing in 1952 owing to vocal problems after doctors found a cyst on her vocal cords that required surgery. 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.

In addition to activities with civic organizations, Ms. 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.   Etta Barnett died in Chicago, Illinois in 2004 at the age of 102.

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