The Many Pioneering Lives of Etta Moten Barnett

Daniel Hautzinger | WTTW

ow many acts can someone fit into a life? If you’re Etta Moten Barnett, enough to make up an epic play. From a young wife and mother to a trailblazing Broadway and Hollywood star admired by George Gershwin and Franklin D. Roosevelt to an ambassador to Africa and an important Chicago hostess and patron, Barnett filled her 102 years with an extraordinary amount of life.

Born in Weimar, Texas in 1901 to a minister father and schoolteacher mother, Barnett began singing as a child and by her teens was already a performer. Her college-educated parents encouraged her to get a degree, but any chance of that or a performance career seemed to be cut short when she married a World War I veteran at age 17 and had three daughters.

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