Remembering the Forgotten Woman: The Twentieth-Century Life of Etta Moten Barnett

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Nonfiction by Katherine Karlin.

Reviewing a new book on the history of Warner Brothers, novelist Leslie Epstein wrote in the Wall Street Journal last summer of his enthusiasm for the elaborate production number “My Forgotten Man,” a rare social statement from choreographer Busby Berkeley. “[Thomson’s] discussion of Gold Diggers of 1933 (ahem, co-written by my stepfather, Erwin Gelsey), particularly the six-minute sequence during which Joan Blondell sings ‘Remember My Forgotten Man,’ is remarkable.”

Epstein describes himself as a son of Hollywood (his father and uncle were the twin screenwriters Philip and Julius Epstein), and his modest inclusion of his stepfather’s screenwriting credits is apt. What’s off here is the claim that Joan Blondell sings. To be sure, Blondell—an enormously likable actress who projected the working-class authenticity that was the Warners trademark—stars in the number, as a streetwalker with a soft spot for the vagrant veterans of the Great War who share her sidewalk. And she introduces the anthem’s lyrics, but she speaks them. The heavy lifting of melodic expression is assigned to a rich-voiced alto who sits at a tenement window above Blondell, gazing over the rooftops. The singer, a Black woman, is uncredited. Her name was Etta Moten.

That conventional Hollywood histories omit artists like Moten is not surprising. Epstein and Thomson advance a narrative of hardscrabble, assimilation-minded Jewish immigrants like Jack and Harry Warner who constructed their particular vision of America; while the inclusion of Etta Moten would illuminate this narrative, it is, to these chroniclers, a digression. The erasure is crucial to the foot-dragging, even today, of African American inclusion in film. But to forget Etta Moten is not only to forget a fascinating moment in pre-Code representaton. To forget Etta Moten is to miss the chance to celebrate a life as eventful as the twentieth century she traversed, an American biography that boasted not only a second act but a third and a triumphant fourth.

When I was growing up in New York in the 1960s, the local TV stations didn’t have much in the way of original programming, and they padded their schedule with old movies. Gold Diggers of 1933 was in heavy rotation. “Remember my Forgotten Man” was conspicuous not only for its solemn acknowledgement of the Depression, but for its African American singer, whose position at a second-floor window suggests a higher social status than the movie’s white star, and whose reading of the song implies a longing for her lost lover that is undeniably sexual. Not a maid, not a mammy, Etta Moten (whose name I did not know at the time) projected a stubborn insistence on her right to be there, to be taken seriously, and her few seconds on screen resonated powerfully with the struggles that were being fought just as the movie was aired on TV.

Etta Moten Barnett circa 1920. Photo credit unavailable.

Decades later, I learned the name Etta Moten as I was reading about Western University, the defunct historically Black institution that was founded in eastern Kansas during the Civil War. Like much of Kansas’s abolitionist past, Western University has been mostly forgotten (the campus, like the Black settlement of Quindaro where it made its home, has been entirely dismantled). Like her lifelong friend and mentor, the redoubtable choir director Eva Jessye, Moten studied in Western’s rigorous music program. She eventually transferred to the University of Kansas where, in 1929 and 1930, she was one of a handful of Black students.

Moten’s resolve to earn her performance degree from KU is even more remarkable considering she was in her late twenties at the time. A nontraditional student in every sense, she was divorced with three daughters (she married a high school teacher while she was still in her teens). Her determination might have come from her upbringing. Her father, Freeman Moten, an AME pastor, was forthcoming in his opinions. Etta recalled how, as a girl, she and her classmates enjoyed a day off from school to glimpse the touring Liberty Bell. “My eyes were aglow and only saddened when I saw the huge crack in the Liberty Bell. I said, ‘Papa, the bell has a crack in it.’ He said, ‘Yes, Baby, when it pealed forth freedom, it was such a big lie that even the bell itself cracked.’ My father’s statement typified the frustrations that Negroes exemplified in 1915-16.”

Etta was born in Texas, in 1901, an only child. Her family moved to Los Angeles where Freeman advanced his ministerial career. In notes she handwrote preparing for a speech late in her life, Etta recalled the swift response in the Negro community following the opening of Birth of a Nation, but also recalled 1915 for a more personal reason: it was the first time her name appeared in the newspaper. Etta and her class were visiting home-garden projects with their teacher, Mr. Schufeldt, and approaching Etta’s home, he warned the other children that they were entering the Negro neighborhood, and “here windows would be stuffed with pillows, where panes were broken, where houses were unpainted and yard unkempt.” Stinging with humiliation, she ran to her father’s chapel, where Freeman was conducting a meeting of the newly chartered Los Angeles NAACP. In attendance was Carlotta Bass, editor of Los Angeles’s Black newspaper, The California Eagle. Bass promptly published an editorial urging “Herr Schufeldt” to return to the “Vaterland” “if he could do nothing more than humiliate the little Negro girl, Etta Moten, the lone Negro in the class.”

The strain of resistance she inherited served her well in Lawrence, Kansas, too, where she studied at the University of Kansas. She recalled a battle with a professor who red-inked her paper because she capitalized the word Negro. “Realizing how this race of ours had fought the long hard battle to get the word to the status of a capital ‘N,’ my own young pride would allow no tampering with this newly won word. I said to my professor that he could mark out the capital ‘N’ as much as he wished, that he could flunk me in the course, but I would never cease writing the word with a capital ‘N.’ He did not flunk me.”

Nevertheless, Moten’s experience at KU was largely positive. It was in Lawrence, ducking into a movie theater one afternoon, that she watched the film Hallelujah with an African American cast, and it struck her that she could actually pursue a Hollywood career. And it was the dean of the performing arts school, Donald Swarthout, who urged Etta to try her luck on Broadway, and facilitated her move by inviting fellow Kansan Eva Jessye to Etta’s senior recital. Moten felt indebted to the University of Kansas and was an active alumna for the rest of her life. In the mid 1950s, as legendary KU basketball coach Phog Allen prepared to retire, he knew the future of the Kansas Jayhawks lay in racial integration, and he deployed Etta—by then a well-known star—to persuade the skeptical parents of Black prospects; among her recruits was young Wilt Chamberlain.

Eva Jessye was impressed enough with Etta’s singing not only to invite her to join the Eva Jessye choir, but to put her up when she arrived in New York. Etta’s memory of stepping off the train at Penn Station tells not only the excitement of being a young artist coming to the city in 1931, but the liveliness of Etta’s writing style:

“I was met by a fellow Kansan Eva Jessye, whose Eva Jessye Choir had been featured in the movie Hallelujah. Eva led me through the maze of that vast underground subway to the ‘A’ Train which rumbled uptown where we got off at 8th Avenue and 145th Street, walked up the steps to the sunlight into Harlem’s wide streets teeming with people. We walked up the hill to S. Nicholas Avenue between garbage cans which lined the outer sidewalks and baby carriages on the inner side. I got the distinct impression that everybody in Harlem had a baby. And we brushed (carefully) by people walking their dogs on the sidewalk. Finally we reach Eva’s apartment. ‘This is Harlem. This is New York City.’”

(As she wrote these remarks, Etta, thinking better of it, drew a line through the sentence about the proliferation of babies in Harlem. Did she think, as she was preparing this speech in the 1980s, it reflected poorly on Black women? I’ve restored it here, as I think it only adds to the sense of wonder she experienced walking through Harlem for the first time.)

Etta was not, she insisted, a “babe in the woods” when she started her career. She was in her thirties and had three kids to support, and she went to New York with a back-up plan—a contract to teach voice and music at Lincoln University, an HBCU in Missouri. She didn’t need it. Moten quickly got parts on Broadway, including in an all-Black revue called “Fast and Furious.” The revue had a brief run, but it placed Etta’s foot firmly in the door, and introduced her to creative New Yorkers like Zora Neale Hurston, who wrote some of the sketches for the show and performed.

Besides Eva Jessye, who staunchly promoted Moten for roles, Etta had a powerful ally in Claude Barnett, whom she met during a stopover in Chicago while she was en route from Kansas to New York. A graduate of Tuskegee Institute where he studied with Booker T. Washington, Barnett started out selling advertising space for Black newspapers in Chicago, when he noticed a need: while mainstream newspapers had wire services like the Associated Press and UPI to feed them national and international stories, no such affiliation provided Black papers with news of interest. Barnett cultivated a network of stringers around the country and molded them into the Associated Negro Press in 1919. The ANP would become a unifying bank of information in the struggles against lynching and Jim Crow; during World War II it was a crucial voice for desgregation of the armed forces. It also disseminated less weighty items on sports, beauty, and entertainment, and Barnett had considerable clout with producers and club owners in New York. When he met Moten he was smitten, and made sure she had a letter of introduction with his signature.

Shortly after Fast and Furious, and a brief run in a voodoo-themed play called Zombie by white vaudeville writer Kenneth Webb, Moten tried her luck in Hollywood. Although her time was brief, she was successful for an African American actress. She signed a contract for one hundred dollars a week with RKO Studio and appeared, with a kind of tropical hat of towering fruit later made famous by Carmen Miranda, in the musical Flying Down to Rio. The movie was typical of the escapist distractions RKO was turning out at the time, but it has been enshrined in movie history as the first pairing, in secondary roles, of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Moten appears in the hit number “The Carioca,” a seven-minute extravaganza that encapsulates the history of dance on film. As soon as Moten appears, the awkward white chorus line cedes the floor to a troop of sexy, sinuous Black jitterbuggers (playing Brazilians, the dancers were African Americans culled from the deep bench of talent in Los Angeles). A year later this sort of suggestive dance would become unscreenable under the puritan restrictions of the Hayes Production Code. Watching the Black dancers, Astaire turns to Rogers and says, “Kinda hot—let’s try a little of that, Babe.” And off they go.

Moten is as hot as the dancing, winking at the audience, diving into warm, richly-colored low notes in her classically trained alto, and smiling authoritatively as she sings the word “lover.” Her buoyant performance, alongside her appearance as the war-weary widow in Gold Diggers of 1933, reveals the persona Moten projected: knowing, sensual, a woman familiar with loss but in control of her own fate. Moten’s other film performance from her Hollywood year is similarly affecting but offscreen. In the Warner Bros melodrama Ladies They Talk About, Moten’s distinctive voice can be heard singing “St. Louis Woman” from an adjacent cell while the star Barbara Stanwyck, as a bad girl trying to be good, reads a letter in prison. Although Moten didn’t have an acting part in the movie, its jailhouse scenes did have some juicy parts for African American actresses who played Stanwyck’s fellow inmates. These roles would disappear once the Code was enforced; Black women and white women would thereafter interact strictly as employer and servant.

With these three roles under her belt before the Code diminished her opportunities, Moten returned to New York. She had developed a reputation, however. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was so moved by “Remember My Forgotten Man” that she invited Moten to the White House to deliver a command performance for the president. (Moten enthusiasts claim she was the first African American to perform at the White House. She was not; there are records of jubilee and spiritual singers reaching back to the Buchanan administration. But Mrs. Roosevelt’s invitation can be interpreted as a gesture toward dismantling the segregationist White House policies put into effect by Woodrow Wilson.) And Moten came back to New York with a new good luck charm—Claude Barnett, whom she married in 1934. Barnett even agreed to leave his beloved Chicago and run the ANP from New York, where he could support Etta’s stage career. Finally Etta was in a position to send for her three young daughters, who were staying in Kansas City with their grandparents, and Barnett embraced his role as stepfather.

The disappointments Moten endured as an African American actress and singer were many. Although as a student in Lawrence she hoped Hallelujah heralded the cusp of a new era for Black performers, the Code briskly quashed that optimism. During the 1940s, only Stormy Weather repeated Hallelujah as a mainstream film with a Black cast, and the lead was Etta’s sometimes rival Lena Horne, who was lighter-skinned, lighter-voiced, and a full generation younger than Etta. (The Kansas City Call, a Black newspaper, put forward Etta’s photo as an alternative pinup for GIs from the Midwest who wanted to demonstrate regional pride and were looking for someone other than New Yorker Horne to grace their bunks.) Moten’s refusal to play servants was celebrated in the Black press, which noted her “dignity.” The conferral of dignity on Moten suggests that actors who continued to work in Hollywood playing servants and Pullman porters—Hattie McDaniel, Louise Beavers, Butterfly McQueen, and Clarence Muse, among many others—lacked it, a notion disputed by their rich careers.

Stagebill from production at Chicago’s Studebaker Theatre, 1942.

Broadway might have promised more alternatives, but it delivered its disappointments, as well. In a breathlessly hopeful letter written in 1935, Moten’s former castmate Zora Neale Hurston pitches an idea for a play that would make Moten a star. “You see, I know some things that white people do not about us. A contralto should always play the lead in a Negro singing play, and she should not be a mulatto. A pretty brown girl with acting ability and a voice will set the world on fire once she gets the right ‘in.’ These Broadway Jews can’t see that until it is done. Then they will all be doing it.” The play was never produced.

Hurston added that she hoped Moten was available “and not too tied up with Porgy,” repeating gossip that was circulating among theater people at the time—that popular songwriter George Gershwin was putting the finishing touches on his magnum opus, the folk opera Porgy and Bess, and that he wrote the role of Bess specifically for Moten. This was a persistent rumor, one that Moten herself put to rest in an interview with the Atlanta Journal in 1976. She did audition for the role. “I sat down on the piano—that was in 1934—and tried out. I told him that it [the register] was too high. I wore an upswept hairdo. But Gershwin wanted me to do it, saying ‘You look the part.’”

Gershwin ultimately refused to lower the register for Moten’s deep voice, and the role went to soprano Anne Brown. The Porgy and Bess choir was directed by Etta’s mentor and champion Eva Jessye, whose attachment to the work in its many revivals and iterations became a lifelong project. The name Eva Jessye was so closely associated with Porgy and Bess that she was, in the decades after Gershwin’s early death, the de facto protector of its legacy. Ultimately, Moten would be known for Porgy and Bess, as well.

Gershwin’s opera, in which he transcribed the rhythms and harmonies he studied during a residence in Charlestown, South Carolina, as well as the jazz and Jewish idioms he had grown up with, was initially a flop, subject to the unapologetic racism and anti-Semitism of classical music’s most vigilant guardians. Composer and critic Virgil Thomson groused about “the impurity of [Gershwin’s] musical sources . . . a highly unsavory stirring-up together of Israel, Africa and the Gaelic Isles” accompanied by “gefilte-fish orchestration.” The work’s fortunes boomeranged in the 1940s, though, after Gershwin’s death, when producers pared the four-hour opera down to the length of a conventional Broadway musical and replaced its sung-through recitatives with spoken dialogue. As the United States entered World War II, Porgy and Bess was celebrated as a quintessentially American work, a tableau of simple Black folk as interpreted by a Jew. Indeed, in the postwar years, as the Marshall Plan expanded America’s influence, Porgy toured constantly throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa (always under Eva Jessye’s watchful eye)—the official State Department cultural export.

In its abbreviated, more accessible version, Porgy and Bess finally found a place for Etta Moten, who, as Gershwin always insisted, “looked the part.” The higher notes were lowered for Moten’s range, but producers insisted she sing the part as a soprano. The strain eventually ended her singing career.

In the decades when conventional opera houses were closed to African American singers, Porgy and Bess provided steady work. From the early forties to the mid sixties, somewhere in the world, a production of Porgy was being staged every night. Ten years before she made her groundbreaking debut at the Metropolitan Opera, superstar Leontyne Price was touring as Bess. (Etta Moten later told an interviewer Price was her favorite Bess, “the very best,” although Eva Jessye, fiercely protective of her choir, muttered that Price’s diva-like attitude made her uncharitable to the hard-working company.) Even as Porgy and Bess fell out of favor, during the Civil Rights movement, when its depiction of a humble cripple and loose woman struck audiences as grossly stereotypical, both Moten and Jessye remained loyal to the work. In her final decades, when she was in high demand as a lecturer, Moten gave speeches detailing Gershwin’s musical influences and defended the authenticity of the composition. In fact, Porgy and Bess fell into such disrepute it was not produced in the United States for ten years. The movie version, directed by Otto Preminger and starring Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge, was removed from circulation. Few prints exist today. Only when the Houston Opera restored it to its original full-length version in 1976, recovering the lost arias and recitatives, was its image rescued.

The very moment that Porgy and Bess fell into disfavor is isolated in one of Eva Jessye’s chatty, gossipy letters to Moten. Although both women fiercely guarded their public images and carefully weighed the effect of their words, in the privacy of their correspondence with each other they were a couple of gals from Kansas dishing the dirt. Eva, writing from London, thanks Etta for sending nylon stockings, which were a scarce commodity in postwar Britain, and she conveys news about a lady cast member who plays cards with the men late into the night. In the 1960s, Etta giggles that rising pop star Dionne Warwick, who starred in a movie with Jessye, “is so damned ugly when she sings she seems to be in misery.” Much of their correspondence was about the many personnel and production decisions about Porgy, the work they both knew so well—until a letter sent from Eva to Etta dated October 30, presumably in 1965. In the midst of news about Porgy stagings in Vienna and Turkey, Eva says, “I am told that Joyce [singer Joyce Bryant] has already been signed to do Bess in California, but it is not certain to be done, due to unrest since the Watts incident, which is understandable. But I would never travel with it in this country, never again.”

Etta Moten and Claude Barnett posed in front of their private African art collection at their home in Chicago, 1960s. Photo courtesy of the Chicago Public Library, Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature.

The end of the 1940s spelled not only the end of Moten’s run in Porgy but the end of her singing career. But it was the beginning of a new career, as well. In 1947, she accompanied Claude to Liberia, where he was to inspect a new school named for his mentor, Booker T. Washington. Moten was a good companion. Her training in classical opera had given her a working knowledge of Romance languages, which came in handy as Africa was throwing off the mantle of European colonialism. And Etta and Claude discovered that princes and revolutionaries alike were only too happy to open their doors to a glamorous singing star. The Barnetts took a whirlwind tour of western Africa, enjoying a cruise on the yacht of Liberian President William Tubman and a chauffeur-driven tour in the sporty Renault owned by the governor of Togoland. But Claude and Etta were particularly interested in the people they met in the markets and villages. African art and textiles resonated deeply with Etta, and she started a lifelong collection.

Upon her return to Chicago, where the Barnetts moved after the close of Etta’s long Porgy run, she typed a ten-page, single-spaced letter to her friends about their African sojourn. So vibrant was her letter, Etta was encouraged to write journalistic dispatches of her own. The Barnetts returned to Africa thirteen times over the next twenty years, and Etta filed syndicated reports under the byline Etta Moten Barnett—a new name for a new occupation.

Claude and Etta were part of the official press corps traveling with Vice President Richard Nixon to witness the lowering of the Union Jack in Accra and the raising of the flag of the newly independent Ghana in 1957. While other American reporters tried to get a word with Nixon, Etta’s journalistic instincts drew her to another countryman participating in the midnight celebration: the young Martin Luther King, Jr., only weeks off his triumph with the Montgomery bus boycott. Etta quickly produced a tape recorder and interviewed King on the spot, then shipped the reel to Chicago, where the interview was broadcast on WMAQ. It was likely the first time most Chicagoans heard King’s voice.

The interview underscores Moten’s optimism about the next generation. She says, “I was delighted when I saw you and Mrs. King get off the bus, get out of your friend’s car, this evening. . . Reverend King, do you feel, have any feeling about the far reaching influence of this particular occasion in the history of mankind? In the history of peoples of color all over the world?” King replies, “I think this event, the birth of this new nation, will give impetus to oppressed peoples all over the world. I think it will have worldwide implications and repercussions–not only for Asia and Africa, but also for America.”

After Claude Barnett’s death in 1967, Etta Moten Barnett lived her final decades as the grand dame of Chicago civic life. She sat on the boards of the Urban League, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the DuSable Art Museum. She served on the national leadership bodies of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority and the Links, an organization of professional Black women. She lectured on African American music and on African art, especially the medium of terra cotta, in which she was recognized as an expert. And she racked up honorary degrees: from Spelman College, University of Illinois in Chicago, Central North Carolina State, and many others. Etta’s family threw lavish birthday parties—perhaps anxious each one would be her last—and nothing could top her one-hundredth, celebrated in November 2001. The event was emceed by iconic Chicago writer Studs Terkel and the major speech was delivered by Etta’s longtime friend, Harry Belafonte. A year later, when she was 101, Etta was recognized for her trailblazing role in film by the Chicago Film Festival.

Etta Moten Barnett circa 1980. Photo courtesy of the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Black Women Oral History Project. Photographer: Judith Sedwick.

The award was presented by Halle Berry, who, seventy years after Etta Moten sang “Remember My Forgotten Man,” became the first African American woman to win an Oscar for Best Actress.

Convinced that nothing could top her one-hundredth birthday, Etta asked that her family not have an elaborate funeral. In her last years, she was taught how to meditate by a granddaughter interested in Buddhism, a practice that brought her great peace. And so this daughter of a Methodist pastor, born in the beginning of one century, was sent off 103 years later with a simple Buddhist chant ceremony.

Harry Belafonte said of Etta Moten Barnet, “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 is a true shining star.”

Lead image: Etta Moten Burnett. Photo credit unavailable.

Katherine Karlin is the author of Send Me Work (Northwestern University Press, 2011). Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in American Chordata, Catapult, Kenyon Review, One Story, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing and film at Kansas State University.

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