As a little girl singing in a Texas church choir, Etta Moten could never have Imagined herself one day appearing on the Hollywood screen. She could never have pictured herself becoming one of the first black women to perform at the White House. And she certainly never thought she’d star on Broadway in a legendary opera. Or be partly responsible for a movement.
“I just loved to sing,” she says with a shrug. At 96, Etta lives in a large Victorian on Chicago’s South Side with her daughter Site. She’s dressed in purple velour with gold hoop earrings, and has a fresh manicure. She’s surrounded by a lifetime of awards, honors, and artifacts from her travels throughout Africa, but points out none of these. Instead, she calls attention to her father’s college diploma.
“That’s real sheepskin,” she says, explaining that her father, a “free Negro,” went to a Texas theological college and became a minister. “He knew Latin and Greek,” she boasts. “He believed in education. That came first.” He would even send Etta’s mother to get her college degree. And as for Etta, an only child, the girl with the gorgeous contralto voice, she too should become a scholar, according to her father.
“But I wanted to get married,” she says. Young Etta hadn’t even finished high school when she announced her plans to wed her teacher and move with him to Oklahoma.
“My father was not happy,” says Etta. In fact, he offered her one hundred dollars if site would reject the proposal. But Etta knew her mind. And her will was strong.
Etta had three daughters and stayed In the marriage for seven years before surrendering to the ugly truth. “He was a philanderer,” site says. There were no threats, no scenes. She simply packed up the children and moved back in with her parents, who were then living in Springfield, MO. She found herself a lawyer and got a divorce.
Her parents took care of the children during the the week while Etta completed high school and college, and returned home on weekends to be with her girls. At the University of Kansas, she was one of about 150 black students out of almost 6,000. She studied voice and drama and graduated at age 30, then boarded a train for New York City. If singing was her gift, well, then sing she would. She would not be intimidated. She believed in herself.
On her way to New York, she stopped in Chicago and met the most remarkable man. He was a six-foot-four bachelor of 42. A newspaper man, and a kindred spirit.
Claude Barnett was a graduate of Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute. He was a protege of the college’s founder and first president, Booker T. Washington, who preached self-help and black capitalism as a recipe for success. In 1919, Claude started the Associated Negro press, a wire service for the nation’s black newspapers. It brought essays, poetry, and book and movie reviews to a community that once had little more to read about itself than news of lynchings.
Claude had read about Etta In a newspaper that used his wire service. He was Intrigued by this brazen girl who thought she could just hop a train and become a Broadway star. He said to her, “What makes you think you can make it in New York?”
“Because I’m good,” she answered.
“And that’s when we hit it off,” she recalls. He wrote letters of Introduction for her to prominent people in New York.
In Harlem in the 1930’s, cabarets were thriving places but often with “white patrons only” policies. And most black entertainers had to play for years In all-black clubs tinder poor conditions and for low pay before being accepted by the more prestigious white clubs, gut Etta beat the odds and on Broadway within months of her arrival. Her second show, Zombie, evolved into a national tour that eventually brought her back to Chicago, where Claude was waiting.
“And that’s when Mr. Hardball Newspaper Man got to he Mr. Stage Door Johnny,” she says. Etta had captured Claude’s heart. He offered to introduce her to the movers and shakers tic knew in Hollywood. Soon she was meeting with the managers of MGM, RKO, and Warner Brothers studios. Soon site was dubbing songs for Barbara Stanwyck and other stars.
“But you’re not supposed to know that,” she says, smiling Etta’s name did not appear In the credits. “That was the business,” she says. “You picked tip your check and left.” The jobs paid about a hundred dollars each.
In those early films, black women appeared only as maids, servants, and jolly, overweight nannies. Etta broke out of those stereotypes in Gold Diggers of 1933, in which she played a widow. Reviewers called her “the new Negro woman.” The song she sang–“My Forgotten Man”–became one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s favorites. He invited Etta to the White House to sing it to him on his birthday.
Next she appeared in Flying Down to Rio, which put together Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers for the first time. In it, Etta sang “Carioca,” which was nominated for an Academy Award. The picture was released in 1933, and a year later she moved to Chicago, married Claude Barnett, and then brought her daughters to live with them.
Etta went on to sing and to bring down the house at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. She remembers the day she met George Gershwin. He had just finished writing Porgy and Bess.
“He said, “This is my first opera, my opera dream,'” she recalls. “And he said, `You’re my Bess. You’ve got to be!'” But he had written the part as a soprano. And Etta was a contralto. She tried to convince him that a low voice was more suited to Bess’s character. He tried to convince her to learn to sing higher. The two could not agree and parted friends.
Porgy and Bess opened on Broadway in 1935 and was revived in 1942. After star Anne Brown left the show in 1942, Etta took over, and played Bess to critical acclaim. But the world was not yet ready for black stars. Etta remembers having to find a room at the “colored” YWCA while her wardrobe mistress, a white woman, was put up in the best hotel.
Etta and Claude made their first trip to Africa in 1947, and over the next two decades they traveled extensively throughout the continent. They brought back a lot more than just Moroccan rugs and ivory sculptures for their home. They brought back stories about African affairs and culture for the Associated Negro Press. They brought back seeds of African-American pride.
Claude Barnett died in 1%7, at 73. He lived to see black journalists get jobs at mainstream newspapers.
Etta has not performed publicly for nearly 25 years. “My voice,” she says. “It just wore out.” It happened while she was playing Bess. “I did it too long.” She says this with a sadness that is palpable, then looks at her daughter. “Could we listen to the tape?” she asks. Sue pushes a button on a tape recorder. Out comes Etta in her prime. “Chasing Shadows,” she sings. Her voice is thick, low, haunting. It’s a recording from her radio program in the 1950’s, I Remember When.
Etta, at 96, listens, closes her eyes, breathes in deeply, then out. “Chasing shadows. Chasing love dreams in vain. While my heart keeps on singing. Just a lonely refrain.”