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Etta Moten Barnett

Year Inducted: 
  • Created new roles for African-American women on both the stage and screen
  • 1943 recipient of the University of Kansas Citation of Merit
  • Active philanthropist and advocate in Chicago, Illinois after her retirement

Etta Moten Barnett was an American actress and contralto vocalist. She can be identified by her signature role of “Bess” in Porgy and Bess. She created new roles for African-American women on stage and screen. After her performing career, Barnett was active in Chicago as a major philanthropist and civic activist, raising funds for and supporting cultural, social and church institutions.

Ms Barnett was born on November 5, 1901 in Weimar, Texas. As the daughter of a Methodist minister she began her singing career in the church choir. She attended Western University, an historically black college (HBCU) in Quindaro, Kansas, where she studied music. She completed her education at the University of Kansas, where she earned a B.A. in voice and drama in 1931. While at the University of Kansas Ms Barnett joined the sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha.

Ms Barnett moved to New York City, where she first performed as a soloist with the Eva Jessye Choir then she was cast in the Broadway show Zombie. On January 31, 1933, Moten became the first black star to perform at the White House. 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 Berkeley musical Gold Diggers of 1933 (singing “My Forgotten Man” with Joan Blondell).

Ira Gershwin discussed her singing the part of “Bess” in his new work Porgy and Bess, which he had written with her in mind. In the 1942 revival, she accepted the role of “Bess”, but she would not a song that was discriminatory towards African-Americans. Ira Gershwin subsequently rewrote 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 due to vocal problems. 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, Moten 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.

(adapted from biography.org)

Honors & Achievements: 
  • 1943 - University of Kansas, citation of merit
  • 1958 - National Association of Business and Professional Women, citation for service
  • 1973 - African Center of Atlanta University, citation for contributions to Afro-American music
  • 1974 - WAIT, citation for contributions to City of Chicago, 1974
  • 1979 - Inducted into Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame

Honorary Degrees

  • 1976 - Atlanta University
  • 1983 - Spelman College
  • 1987 - University of Illinois
  • 1989 - Lincoln University (Pennsylvania)
  • 1989 - North Carolina Central University


On Stage

  • Fast and Furious, musical revue (1931)
  • Zombie, a play (1932)
  • Porgy and Bess, musical revival (1943)
  • Lysistrata, Aristophanes' comedy, with an all-black cast (1946)

In Film

  • Ladies They Talk About (1933)
  • Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)
  • Flying Down to Rio (1933)
  • A Day at the Races (1937)

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