While our physical offices are closed until further notice in accordance with Austin's COVID-19 "stay home-work safe" order, the Handbook of Texas will remain available at no-cost for you, your fellow history enthusiasts, and all Texas students currently mandated to study from home. If you have the capacity to help us maintain our online Texas history resources during these uncertain times, please consider making a 100% tax-deductible contribution today. Thank you for your support of TSHA and Texas history. Donate Today »


Candace Goodwin
Etta M. Barnett
Portrait of Etta Moten Barnett. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

BARNETT, ETTA MOTEN (1901–2004). Etta Moten Barnett, singer, actress, activist, and philanthropist, was born on November 5, 1901, in Weimar, Texas. She was the only daughter of African Methodist Episcopal minister Freeman F. Moten and dressmaker Ida Mae (Norman) Moten. Etta Moten became active at an early age in the congregation that her father pastored. At ten years old she began teaching Sunday school and singing in the church choir. Following high school Moten married Curtis Brooks and lived in Oklahoma, but after six years and three children, they divorced. She and her three daughters then relocated to Kansas where they lived with her parents, so she could attend the University of Kansas while majoring in voice and drama. Moten was discovered at her senior recital and invited to join the Eva Jessye Choir in New York, which she did following graduation in 1931.

In New York Moten starred in such productions as Fast and Furious (1931) and Zombie (1932). She then moved to Los Angeles, where she made her first onscreen appearance in Busby Berkeley’s 1933 film Gold Diggers of 1933. Moten, who played a widowed housewife and sang “My Forgotten Man” in the film, is credited for helping break the Hollywood stereotype of black women playing roles as domestic servants. In what would be her most famous screen appearance, she played a Brazilian singer in Flying Down To Rio (1933), which starred Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Moten sang the Oscar-nominated song “The Carioca,” wearing fruit in her hair (long before Carmen Miranda adopted a similar headdress).

Porgy and Bess Playbill
Porgy and Bess Playbill starring Etta Barnett and Todd Duncan, November 1942. Courtesy of the Chicago Public Library and Humanities Texas. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

On January 31, 1934, at the invitation of President and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Moten made history when she became the first African-American woman to perform at the White House. Moten eventually relocated to New York City and would be featured in such popular Broadway shows as Sugar Hill and Lysistrata. From 1942 to 1945, she starred in the wildly popular Broadway production of Porgy and Bess. In fact, George Gershwin is believed to have written the character of “Bess” with Moten in mind. She followed Broadway with a number of performances, including concerts with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and participated in music festivals throughout the world, including her last performance at a Danish concert in 1952.

Etta and Claude Barnett
Etta and Claude Barnett with their African art collection, circa 1960s. Courtesy of the Chicago Public Library and the University of Chicago. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

 In 1934 Moten married Claude Barnett, founder of the Negro Associated Press. Together they traveled during the late 1950s as members of a U.S. delegation to Ghana and other African nations. Barnett represented the U.S. Government on missions to more than ten African nations and was given honorary degrees from many universities and colleges, including Spelman College and the University of Illinois. Following her husband’s death in 1967, Barnett became more involved in local affairs. She was a national trustee of the National Conference of Christians and Jews and of the African American Institute. She also was a member of the women’s boards of the Lyric Opera, the Field Museum, the University of Chicago, and the Art Institute. In 1979 Barnett was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. She was named one of Texas’s 100 most influential women of the twentieth century by the Texas Women’s Chamber of Commerce. She died on January 2, 2004, at the age of 102 of pancreatic cancer at Chicago Mercy Hospital.


Claudia Luther, “Etta Moten Barnett, 102: ‘Porgy and Bess’ Star Sang at the White House,” Los Angeles Times (http://www.afrigeneas.com/forumb/index.cgi?noframes;read=10331), accessed August 21, 2007. Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans: A History, Third Edition (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997). John Troesser, “Etta Moten Barnett,” Texas Escapes Online Magazine (http://www.texasescapes.com/TexasPersonalities/Etta-Moten-Barnett.htm), accessed September 25, 2006. 

Image Use Disclaimer

All copyrighted materials included within the Handbook of Texas Online are in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 related to Copyright and “Fair Use” for Non-Profit educational institutions, which permits the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), to utilize copyrighted materials to further scholarship, education, and inform the public. The TSHA makes every effort to conform to the principles of fair use and to comply with copyright law.

For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml

If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.


The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Handbook of Texas Online, Candace Goodwin, "BARNETT, ETTA MOTEN ," accessed July 07, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fbaug.

Uploaded on May 28, 2013. Modified on August 9, 2017. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
visit the mytsha forums to participate

View these posts and more when you register your free MyTSHA account.

Call for Papers: Texas Center for Working-Class Studies Events, Symposia, and Workshops
Hi all! You may be interested in this call for papers I received from the Texas Center for Working-Class Studies at Collin College...

Katy Jennings' Ride Scholarly Research Request
I'm doing research on Catherine Jennings Lockwood, specifically the incident known as "Katy Jennings' Ride." Her father was Gordon C. Jennings, the oldest man to die at the Alamo...

Texas Constitution of 1836 Co-Author- Elisha Pease? Ask a Historian
The TSHA profile of Elisha Marshall Pease states that he wrote part of the Texas Constitution although he was only a 24 year-old assistant secretary (not elected). I cannot find any other mention of this authorship work by Pease in other credible research about the credited Constution authors...