Texas Originals

Etta Moten Barnett

November 5, 1901–January 2, 2004

Acclaimed singer and actress Etta Moten Barnett was born in Weimar, Texas, in 1901. By the age of ten, she was singing in the choir of her father’s church. Thirty-three years later, at the invitation of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, she became the first African American woman to sing at the White House.

Barnett's career led her to Hollywood, where she appeared in films such as Busby Berkeley's Gold Diggers of 1933 and Flying Down to Rio, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. These breakthrough roles defied stereotypes for black women and paved the way for singers and actresses such as Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne.

Barnett also starred on Broadway, most notably as Bess in a revival of Porgy and Bess. She charmed audiences around the world singing in concerts with the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

In addition to her performing career, Barnett was deeply involved in civic affairs, women’s issues, and causes such as African independence. She received citations and honorary degrees for her artistry and humanitarian work. In 1979, she was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame and was named by the Texas Women’s Chamber of Commerce one of the twentieth century's one hundred most influential Texas women.

A longtime Chicago resident, Etta Barnett died in 2004, at the age of 102.

For more about Etta Moten Barnett

The Etta Moten Barnett Papers are held in the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection at the Carter G. Woodson Regional Library, a division of the Chicago Public Library. The collection includes manuscripts, correspondence, programs, clippings, photographs, and memorabilia.

The transcript of a 1957 radio interview that Etta Moten Barnett conducted with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Accra, Ghana, has been published online by Stanford University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute.

Barnett’s performance credits are available from the Internet Movie Database and the Internet Broadway Database.

Selected bibliography

Brennan, Carol. "Etta Moten Barnett." In Contemporary Black Biography: Profiles from the International Black Community, vol. 56, edited by Pamela M. Kalte, 3–5. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2006.

Gilfoyle, Timothy J. "Stars of Chicago: Interviews with Etta Moten Barnett and Sid Luckman." Chicago History 28, no. 2 (2000): 60–72.

Goodwin, Candace. "Barnett, Etta Moten." Handbook of Texas Online. Accessed June 5, 2014.

Hill, Ruth Edmonds. "Etta Moten Barnett." In Notable Black American Women, edited by Jessie Carney Smith, 51–55. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1992.

Kellar, Alison. "Barnett, Etta Moten." In African American National Biography, vol. 1, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, 282–283. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Luther, Claudia. "Etta Moten Barnett, 102; 'Porgy and Bess' Star Sang at the White House." Los Angeles Times, January 5, 2004.  Accessed June 5, 2014.

Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. 3rd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997.

Troesser, John. "Etta Moten Barnett." Texas Escapes Online Magazine. Accessed June 5, 2014.

Listen to the audio

Portrait of Etta Moten Barnett. Courtesy of Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection, Carter G. Woodson Regional Library, Chicago Public Library.
Porgy and Bess playbill, November 1942. The opera starred Etta Moten Barnett and Todd Duncan and played at the Studebaker Theater in Chicago. Courtesy of Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection, Carter G. Woodson Regional Library, Chicago Public Library.