Ethel Moses: The Black Jean Harlow

What a great screen name for an African American star of the early 20th century is Ethel Moses (1904-1982), a sort of mash-up of Ethel Waters and the spiritual “Go Down, Moses”. In show business, though, she was promoted as “the black Jean Harlow“, which evokes quite a different image from that suggested by her saintly sounding given name.

The daughter of a Baptist preacher, Moses attended the Nannie Helen Burroughs School, a trade school for African American girls in Washington, D.C. In 1922 she was in Lew Leslie’s Plantation Revue, followed by Dixie to Broadway (1924), both with Florence Mills.  That year she also broke into films with a supporting role in Oscar Micheaux’s original silent version of Birthright. In 1926 she took first place in a well publicized beauty contest at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom. Three Broadway shows followed: Keep Shufflin’ (1928), Singin’ the Blues (1931), and  a revival of Show Boat (1932). At the same time, she was performing at venues like the Cotton Club, and singing and dancing with Cab Calloway’s band, which led to he appearing in the movie shorts Cab Calloway’s Hi-De-Ho (1934), and Cab Calloway’s Jitterbug Party (1935). In 1936 she married Calloway’s piano player Benny Payne. Then there were several more Oscar Micheaux features: Temptation (1935, in which she was “the Bronze Venus”), Underworld (1937), Gone Harlem (1938), God’s Step Children (1938), and the remake of Birthright (1939), in which she starred this time.

Moses retired from show business rather abruptly in the 1940s, remarried, and lived a private life in Jamaica Queens. Her sisters, Lucie Lynn Moses and Demaurice Moses, were both also in show business.