Etta Moten Barnett: African American Singer and Actress

Photo: Etta Moten Barnett (b. Nov. 5, 1901 – d. Jan. 2, 2004) 
in Gershwin's Porgy and Bess

Etta Moten Barnett has been a tireless pioneer in her career as a musical performer, actress, and community activist.


Etta Moten Barnett was born in Weimer, Texas on November 5, 1901. The only child of Rev. Freeman F. Moten, an African Methodist Episcopal minister, and school teacher Ida Moten, she remembers her childhood fondly as a time of singing with the choir in her father's church. It was at Paul Quinn College in Texas that the quality of her singing voice was first rewarded with an educational scholarship.

Moten went on to attend Western University, an Historically Black University (HBU) in Kansas. Her professional singing career took off once she joined the Jackson Jubilee Singers and went on to sing with the renowned Eva Jessye Choir.


Moten was discovered as an actress by a talent scout for the 1931 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers classic movie Flying Down to Rio. She is best remembered, however, for her role as the incarnate heroine Bess in the original George Gershwin production of the popular musical Porgy and Bess. Gershwin chose Eva Jessye as the choral director for the 1935 opera production of Porgy and Bess.

Photo: 1935 Cast of Porgy and Bess
(photographer Richard Tucker. Oct. 10, 1935.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

A pioneering Black musical performer, Etta Moten Barnett broke the film industry's color barrier as the first Black performer to play in a film role that was not a domestic role, when she performed in The Gold Diggers in 1933.

As a Chicago resident, Moten was active in promoting the arts through the South Side Community Art Center and DuSable Museum of African American History. Moten was appointed by the U.S. federal government as a cultural ambassador to ten African countries. In shaped this role as an opportunity to led cultural exchange missions between African Americans and Africans. Moten was an active member of the National Council of Negro Women in Chicago.

Photo: The late Etta Moten Barnett's home in Chicago
3619 S. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive

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