It’s the 89th anniversary of that performance!
According to Humanities Texas, Etta Moten Barnett was born on November 5, 1901 in Weimar, Texas. She grew up singing in her father’s church, becoming a renowned singer and actress in Hollywood. She launched her career on Broadway, performing in productions like Sugar Hill, Lysistrata, and Porgy and Bess, The History Makers reports. She also traveled around the globe with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and appeared in a number of Hollywood films, such as Busby Berkely’s Gold Diggers and Flying Down to Rio with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. On January 31, 1934, the beloved actress made history as the first Black woman to perform at the White House during the 20th century, the first in 50 years since Marie Selika Williams performed for President Rutherford B. Hayes and First Lady Lucy Webb Hayes in 1878, BlackPast.org reports.
She first married when she was just 17 years old, birthing three children with her first husband before attending college. The two would divorce six years later, Moten Barnett enrolling at the University of Kansas and singing to help pay for school and take care of her children. While traveling with the Eva Jessye Choir, she met Claude Barnett, founder of the Negro Associated Press, in Chicago. The two fell in love and Moten Barnett remarried. She became extremely engaged in civil rights, the couple focusing their joint efforts on a number of philanthropic endeavors, from women’s issues to African independence. During the 1950s, the Barnetts traveled to Ghana as members of the U.S. delegation and represented the U.S. at the independence ceremonies of Nigeria, Zambia, and Lusaka. After Mr. Barnett’s death in 1967, Moten Barnett doubled down on her efforts, working with Chicago’s DuSable Museum, Southside Community Arts Center, and the Lyric Opera, WTTW reports.
In 1979, she was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame and was named one of 20th century’s 100 most influential Texas women by the Texas Women’s Chamber of Commerce. She also received honorary degrees from Lincoln University, Spelman College and the University of Illinois, as well as an award honoring her contributions to American Music by Atlanta University. The Chicago Academy for the Performing Arts also established a scholarship in her honor for minority students.
Her innumerable contributions to entertainment and culture paved the way for a number of Black women artists to come, like Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne. She broke barriers and challenged stereotypes for Black women, Harry Belafonte once calling her a “true shining star.”
“She gave Black people an opportunity to look at themselves on a big screen as something beautiful when all that was there before spoke to our degradation. In her, we found another dimension to being Black in our time. She was a true shining star,” Belafonte previously told reporters.
The pioneering actress and singer passed away on January 2, 2004, at the age of 102. We remember her contributions and pay homage. Because of Mrs. Etta Moten Barnett, we can.
Meet Etta Moten, the first Black woman to perform at the White House during the 20th century. Photo Courtesy of Etta Moten Barnett/The Chicago Tribune