Etta Moten Barnett, a singer and actress who played romantic, sexy figures in movies at a time when most other black actresses were relegated to roles as nannies or maids, has died. She was 102.
Barnett, who also was a Broadway star, died of pancreatic cancer at Chicago’s Mercy Hospital on Friday, according to a news release from her family.
In 1933’s “Flying Down to Rio,” Barnett was cast as a Brazilian entertainer who sang “The Carioca” while Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced. She received her first on-screen credit for the role, and the song was nominated for an Academy Award as best song.
Her voice caught the attention of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who invited her to sing at his White House birthday party.
“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,” actor Harry Belafonte said at Barnett’s 100th birthday party in 2001. “In her we found another dimension to being black in our time. She was a true shining star.”
The Pittsburgh Courier, a black newspaper, dubbed Barnett “the first Negro woman to play a dignified role in pictures.”
The daughter of a Methodist minister in Texas, Barnett had plans for college that were derailed when she married one of her high school teachers, according to her family’s news release.
When the marriage fell apart, Barnett’s parents took care of her three young daughters so she could attend the University of Kansas. After graduating at age 30 with a degree in voice and drama, Barnett moved to New York City, where she landed a spot singing with the Eva Jessye Choir.
The lead in the Broadway show “Zombie” followed, and she ventured into film after the show toured in Los Angeles. She dubbed songs for actresses and sang a ballad in the Busby Berkeley film “Gold Diggers of 1933.”
In 1934, Barnett married Claude Barnett, the head of the Associated Negro Press, a wire service for black newspapers. Eight years later, she appeared as Bess in “Porgy and Bess” on Broadway and then toured with the show until 1945.
She also performed in symphony concerts and music festivals, but a strained voice forced her to give up performing in 1952.
Barnett later became involved in many civic organizations, including the National Council of Negro Women, the Chicago Lyric Opera and the Field Museum. She also hosted a radio show in Chicago.
Claude Barnett died in 1967. Barnett is survived by Sue Ish, a daughter from her first marriage, and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The family has not announced any funeral arrangements.