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NOVEMBER 5, 1901 - JANUARY 2, 2004

Etta Moten Barnett was an American contralto known for her performance of Bess in the 1942 revival of Gerswin’s Porgy and Bess. Born in Weimar, TX where her father was a Methodist minister and her mother a teacher, the family moved to Kansas City in 1915. She subsequently attended Western University in Quindaro, Kansas, leaving school when she married Curtis Brooks.  After their divorce, she and her three surviving children moved in with her parents and she enrolled at the University of Kansas, majoring in music and drama. She graduated in 1931.


She moved to New York, where she pursued a career on the stage. After a short Broadway career, she auditioned for Warner Brothers in Los Angeles, and began dubbing songs for white film stars, work for which she received no acknowledgement in the credits. For this work she received $100 per film. In The Gold Diggers of 1933, she sang the tune “My Forgotten Man”; President Franklin D. Roosevelt invited her to the White House where she performed this song and became the first Black artist to perform at the White House in the twentieth century (Madame Marie Selika performed there fifty year earlier). She also sang “Carioca” in Flying down to Rio, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Mrs. Barnett was well known for her activism and philanthropy. She and her second husband, Claude A. Barnett (founder and director of the Chicago-based Associated Negro Press) represented the White House on trips to Africa during the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations. She hosted a radio show “I Remember When,” was a founding member of the women’s board of the Chicago Field Museum, was active with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and served on the boards of WTTW, the DuSable Museum of African American History, and the National Council of Christians and Jews. Her life was the subject of a play entitled “Papa’s Child: The Story of Etta Moten Barnett” by Useni Eugene Perkins (2001).


Video Credit: WOSU Public Media

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