Besides making history at the White House, she was also known for her role of “Bess” in the opera Porgy and Bess. Actress and vocalist Etta Moten Barnett paved the way for other Blacks in the film industry. In Weimar, Texas, where she was born in 1901, she was raised as the only child of her parents. Her father was a Methodist minister, and it is therefore not surprising that when Moten and her family moved to Kansas City, she started singing in church choirs.
By the age of 17, she was already married to one of her school teachers and they gave birth to three children. But while singing in her father’s church choir during high school, she was touring with the Jackson Jubilee Singers during summer vacations. She saved some money to enable her further her education at the University of Kansas to study voice and drama after divorcing her husband in 1924.
Moten subsequently joined Broadway, getting a part in “Zombie”. It closed after two performances. “But there is someone in the back of the house who’d come to the performance to see me,” she recounted in an interview. “They were impressed with what they saw that night. You’re playing your heart out, you know.”
Moten eventually landed in Hollywood, starting a film career. In her first film called The Gold Diggers in 1933, she played the role of a widow, singing the song “My Forgotten Man”. Her name was not included in the credits but her fellow Blacks were impressed with her performance because they rarely saw someone who looked like them on a movie screen, the Chicago Tribune reported.
Moten subsequently sang “Carioca” in the film Flying Down to Rio that same year. She did not get other film roles but became a dub for the voices of other leading actresses, including Barbara Stanwyck and Ginger Rogers. Her vocal prowess and acting skills got her into the White House in 1934. President Franklin Roosevelt and his wife invited her to perform on January 31 that year, making Moten the first Black woman to sing at the White House.
By 1942, she had gained the leading role of Bess in that year’s revival of Porgy and Bess. This was after her marriage to the founder of the Associated Negro Press Claude Albert Barnett. Becoming one of Chicago’s first Black power couples, Moten and Barnett were often among the official U.S. delegation at independence day celebrations of African nations, according to the Chicago Defender. They also did charity work. Moten herself was appointed to represent the U.S. on cultural missions to 10 African nations. She became known for a radio show, I Remember When on WMAQ after she retired in the 1950s.
Becoming a member of the National Council of Negro Women, the Chicago Lyric Opera, and the Field Museum, Moten was honored at Chicago International Film Festival’s tribute to African-American women in film in 2003. The National Black Arts Festival also gave her a Living Legend Award. She was further inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. Actress and vocalist Moten passed away from 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.