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Texas Originals

Etta Barnett, Singer, Actress, Civic Activist

Singer and actress was first African-American woman to sing at White House.



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Etta Moten and Claude Barnett posed in front of their private African art collection at their home in Chicago, 1960s. Image Credit: Etta Moten Barnett Papers, Chicago Public Library, Carter G. Woodson Regional Library, Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature


November 5, 1901–January 2, 2004

Acclaimed singer and actress Etta Moten Barnett was born in Weimar, Texas, in 1901. By the age of ten, she was singing in the choir of her father’s church. Thirty-three years later, at the invitation of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, she became the first African American woman to sing at the White House.

Barnett’s career led her to Hollywood, where she appeared in films such as Busby Berkeley’s Gold Diggers of 1933 and Flying Down to Rio, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. These breakthrough roles defied stereotypes for black women and paved the way for singers and actresses such as Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne.

Bronzeville Mural
Bronzeville Mural in Chicago with representations of famous African-Americans. (Moten Barnett is fourth from left.) Photo by chicagogeek from Flickr Creative Commons.

Barnett also starred on Broadway, most notably as Bess in a revival of Porgy and Bess. She charmed audiences around the world singing in concerts with the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

In addition to her performing career, Barnett was deeply involved in civic affairs, women’s issues, and causes such as African independence. She received citations and honorary degrees for her artistry and humanitarian work. In 1979, she was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame and was named by the Texas Women’s Chamber of Commerce one of the twentieth century’s 100 most influential Texas women.

A longtime Chicago resident, Etta Barnett died in 2004, at the age of 102.

For more about Etta Moten Barnett

The Etta Moten Barnett Papers are held in the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection at the Carter G. Woodson Regional Library, a division of the Chicago Public Library. The collection includes manuscripts, correspondence, programs, clippings, photographs, and memorabilia.

Selected bibliography

Brennan, Carol. “Etta Moten Barnett.” In Contemporary Black Biography: Profiles from the International Black Community, vol. 56, edited by Pamela M. Kalte, 3–5. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2006.

Hill, Ruth Edmonds. “Etta Moten Barnett.” In Notable Black American Women, edited by Jessie Carney Smith, 51–55. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1992.

Kellar, Alison. ”Barnett, Etta Moten.” In African American National Biography, vol. 1, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, 282–283. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. 3rd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997.