Etta Moten Barnett blazed a trail for Black women in entertainment, changing the perception of how her race and gender were seen on-screen and stage. On this day in 1934, Barnett became the first African-American woman to perform inside the White House.
Barnett was born Etta Moten on November 5, 1901 in Weimar, Texas. She married young and gave birth to three daughters but divorced while in school. Barnett’s parents raised her girls while she continued her studies at the University of Kansas where she was discovered as a singer. She was invited to join the prestigious Eva Jessye Choir in New York after her graduation in 1931, landing Broadway roles in plays such as Sugar Hill and Fast & Furious before heading west to star in films.
In 1934, based on her talents onstage and screen, Barnett was personally invited by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to sing at his birthday party at the White House. According to some accounts, the event took place in 1933. Further unconfirmed reports state Moten’s voice was dubbed in movies for actress Ginger Rogers, a common practice at the time for glamorous actresses who were not blessed with singing ability.
That same year, Barnett married Claude Barnett, the founder and owner of the American Negro Press. It would be years before Barnett graced the stage again, landing the role in George Gershwin’s celebrated Porgy & Bess play in the role of Bess. She performed for a decade longer, retiring due to vocal problems.
Alongside her husband, she traveled as part of a U.S. delegation to Ghana, and was also a cultural representative of the states at independence ceremonies across Africa. After her husband’s death in 1967, the Alpha Kappa Alpha soror involved herself in a variety of civic organizations.
In 1979, Barnett was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. In 2001, during her 100th birthday celebration, Halle Berry presented Barnett with an award during the Chicago International Film Festival’s tribute “Black Women in Film – From Etta to Halle.”
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