An actress and singer closely identified with the role of Bess in the opera Porgy and Bess, Etta Moten Barnett was born in Texas and studied music and drama at Western University in Kansas City, Kansas, and at the University of Kansas.
Moving to New York City she became a musical inspiration for Kansas City-born composer Virgil Thomson and the great George Gershwin. Though Gershwin wrote the role of Bess with her in mind, Moten Barnett did not sing the role until a revival of the opera in 1942. It became her signature role.
In 1933 Moten Barnett became the first African American star to perform at the White House. That year she appeared in two film musicals, “Flying Down to Rio” (singing “The Carioca”) and “Gold Diggers of 1933” (singing “My Forgotten Man”). She retired from performing in 1952 and hosted a Chicago-based radio show.
She was appointed to represent the United States on cultural missions to 10 African nations. She was also active in the National Council of Negro Women, the Chicago Lyric Opera, and the Field Museum.