Etta Moten Barnett, African-American thesp and contralto singer who starred in the 1942 Broadway revival of “Porgy and Bess” and broke color barriers in two 1930s films as well as at the White House, died Friday Jan. 2 of pancreatic cancer at Mercy Hospital in Chicago. She was 102.
Lena Horne called her a role model.
Daughter of a Methodist minister in Texas, married young, bore three children and left her marriage before she was 30. After her divorce, she returned to school, earning a bachelor’s degree in voice and drama, and a teacher’s credential from the U. of Kansas, where she was one of only 150 African-Americans in a student body of 6,000.
Her 1931 senior recital led to an invite to perform for the Eva Jessye Choir in New York. On her way she met Claude Barnett, founder of the Associated Negro Press, whose contacts could help her in New York. They married in 1934.
Once in New York, she got a part in Broadway show “Fast and Furious,” then got a role in “Zombie,” which went on the road, leading to the West Coast and Hollywood.
There she dubbed voices for Barbara Stanwyck, Ginger Rogers and other actresses in several films and appeared in two: “Flying Down to Rio” and “Gold Diggers of 1933.” In the latter, she sings a chorus of “Remember the Forgotten Man,” posed glamorously in a window — a far cry from the maids and mammies that black actresses were relegated to.
Eleanor Roosevelt asked her to sing “Forgotten Man” at President Franklin Roosevelt’s birthday in 1934, and thus Barnett became the first black woman to sing in the White House.
She returned to New York to star in the 1942 revival of “Porgy and Bess.” George Gershwin had wanted Barnett for the original production in 1935 — but he wanted a soprano and cast Ann Brown instead. After Gershwin died, “Porgy and Bess” was shortened for the return to Broadway and Barnett got the part, playing it for six months on Broadway before taking it on the road for two years. But the strain of singing as a soprano for so long damaged her voice, she later said.
After her husband’s death in 1967, Barnett remained active in many orgs, including the National Council of Negro Women, the Chicago Lyric Opera, the Field Museum in Chicago, the DuSable Museum of African American History, the National Conference of Christians and Jews and the African American Institute.
At her 100th birthday party, Harry Belafonte was among her well-wishers.
She is survived by a daughterand several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.