She was best known for her role as “Bess” in the opera Porgy and Bess, in addition to making history at the White House. Etta Moten Barnett, an actress and vocalist, paved the way for other Blacks in the film industry. She was raised as the only child of her parents in Weimar, Texas, where she was born in 1901. Moten’s father was a Methodist minister, so it’s no surprise that when she and her family moved to Kansas City, she began singing in church choirs.
She married one of her school teachers when she was 17 years old, and they had three children. During high school, she sang in her father’s church choir, but during summer vacations, she toured with the Jackson Jubilee Singers. After divorcing her husband in 1924, she saved some money to continue her education at the University of Kansas, where she studied voice and drama.
Moten subsequently joined Broadway, getting a part in “Zombie”. It was shut down after two performances. “But there was someone in the back of the house who had come to see me,” she explained in an interview. “What they saw that night impressed them. You’re giving it your all, you know.”
Moten eventually made his way to Hollywood and began his film career. She played a widow in her first film, The Gold Diggers, released in 1933, and sang the song “My Forgotten Man” during the performance. Her name was not listed in the credits, but her fellow African-Americans were impressed with her performance because they rarely saw someone who looked like them on a movie screen, according to the Chicago Tribune.
That same year, Moten sang “Carioca” in the film Flying Down to Rio. She did not get any other film roles, but she did become a dubbing actress for the voices of other leading ladies, including Barbara Stanwyck and Ginger Rogers. Her vocal prowess and acting abilities helped her gain access to the White House in 1934. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife invited her to perform at the White House on January 31, that year, making Moten the first Black woman to do so.
By 1942, she had landed the lead role of Bess in the revival of Porgy and Bess that year. This was after her marriage to Claude Albert Barnett, the founder of the Associated Negro Press. Moten and Barnett, who became one of Chicago’s first Black power couples, were frequently among the official U.S. delegation at African nations’ independence day celebrations, according to the Chicago Defender. They also participated in charitable activities. Moten was appointed to represent the United States on cultural missions to ten African countries. After retiring in the 1950s, she became well-known for hosting the radio show I Remember When on WMAQ.
Moten was honored at the Chicago International Film Festival’s tribute to African-American women in film in 2003, after becoming a member of the National Council of Negro Women, the Chicago Lyric Opera, and the Field Museum. She also received a Living Legend Award from the National Black Arts Festival. She was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame as well. Moten, an actress and singer, died of pancreatic cancer on January 2, 2004, at the age of 103, in Chicago.
She once said in an interview that all she ever wanted to do was make people happy. “And I wanted to show them that no matter what their dreams can come true,” said the history-maker.