Etta Moten Barnett

A true star of the Broadway musical, and a major role model and inspiration to African-American women.
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Artist Biography

b. Etta Moten, 5 November 1901, Weimar, Texas, USA, d. 2 January 2004, Chicago, Illinois, USA. The only child of the Rev. Freeman F. Moten and Ida Mae Norman, Etta was five years old when it was realized that she possessed a fine singing voice. She joined the Methodist church choir, declaring in a 1942 interview that she could remember ‘nothing quite so wonderful as standing on that box singing hymns out over the heads of people.’ In 1915, the family moved to the Kansas City area where, when she was 17, she married Curtis Brooks. The couple had four children, one of whom died in infancy. The marriage ended in divorce and she then enrolled at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, majoring in voice and drama and earning her degree at the age of 30. By this time she had made some appearances on a university radio show and during the summer vacation she toured with the Jackson Jubilee Singers. On graduation, and with no more experience than this, she went to New York where she won a leading role in Zombie for a two-month Broadway run, after which the show went on a national tour. A meeting in Los Angeles with the respected African American actor Clarence Muse resulted in an audition for Warner Brothers. She began a career, usually not credited, dubbing the singing voice for various film actors. Her appearance in Gold Diggers Of 1933 (1933) was unusual for its period in that she played the part of a widowed housewife and not one of the usual demeaning domestic servant roles then reserved for black actors. She made a considerable impact, singing ‘My Forgotten Man’, a song that vividly evoked Depression-era emotions and which she later sang at The White House for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. She attracted even more attention with her appearance in Flying Down To Rio (1933), in which she played a gaudily-dressed Brazilian entertainer, singing ‘The Carioca’, which received an unsuccessful Oscar nomination as Best Song.

In 1934, she married Claude A. Barnett, head of the Chicago-based Associated Negro Press. He would later become a special assistant to the Secretary of Agriculture during President Harry S. Truman’s administration. Subsequently, the Barnetts would represent The White House during the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations, often on trips to Africa. These included serving as Ambassadors of Goodwill at independence celebrations in Nigeria, Zambia, and Ghana, the latter included attending the inauguration of the first president of Ghana in 1960. The marriage lasted until Claude Barnett’s death in 1967. Meanwhile, her career as a performer had continued. In 1942, she played the role of Bess in a Broadway revival of George Gershwin’s Porgy And Bess. The on-Broadway run and a subsequent national tour lasted for three years. Unfortunately, the graduation to soprano from her natural contralto necessitated by this performance ultimately damaged her voice. She now chose where possible to work in smaller venues, performing at Red Cross concerts in Nigeria and the Gold Coast of Africa in 1947. Even so, Barnett occasionally performed at symphony concerts and at music festivals, appearing at numerous colleges and universities during tours of North and South America, and West Africa. In 1949/50 she was a student at Northwestern University School of Speech. Barnett’s last significant singing performance was a 1952 concert in Denmark. Thereafter, she restricted her performances to lecture recitals and as host for several years of I Remember When, a radio programme on WMAQ in Chicago that was networked by NBC in most states of the union.

Although she had effectively retired from singing by the 60s, Barnett continued to have many more productive years, albeit in somewhat different areas. In subsequent decades she worked in many areas, most connected to the African American community in Chicago. Among groups in which she was active were the National Council of Negro Women, the Chicago Lyric Opera, the Field Museum, the South Side Community Arts Center, the DuSable Museum of African-American History, and the National Council of Christians and Jews. She was the recipient of honorary degrees from, among others, Lincoln University, Atlanta University, Spelman College, and the University of Illinois at Chicago, and in 1979 she was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.

In 2001, Barnett’s life was the subject of Papa’s Child: The Story Of Etta Moten Barnett, a play by Useni Eugene Perkins that was presented in Chicago by the city’s ETA Creative Arts Foundation. In that same year, actress Halle Berry presented her with an award at the Chicago International Film Festival’s tribute, ‘Black Women In Film - From Etta to Halle’. Also in 2001, she celebrated her 100th birthday party, attended by 400 guests including Harry Belafonte, who said on that occasion: ‘She gave black people an opportunity to look at themselves on a big screen as something beautiful when all that was there before spoke to our degradation. In her we found another dimension to being black in our time. She is a true shining star.’ In a letter, Sidney Poitier recalled watching her rehearsing in the 40s for a production of Lysistrata, and went on to write that she was ‘the most incredible, amazing, voluptuous, dignified and sensual actress to grace the Broadway stage in my lifetime.’ After this occasion, Barnett told relatives that this was enough celebration of her life and requested that no funeral be held when she died, declaring of the birthday honours, ‘You can’t top that.’ She continued living a full and vibrant life, and serving as an example to several younger generations of aspiring African American women. She died of pancreatic cancer two days after the disease was diagnosed.