Everybody Welcome

In honor of Black History Month, allow me to introduce you to a remarkable woman who once called Colorado Springs home. On October 26, 2019 our city welcomed a new sculpture in front of the Pikes Peak Center for the Performing Arts. The life-size figure depicts Fannie Mae Duncan (1918-2005) in her mid-30s, elegantly-attired, enthusiastic, and with her right arm extended in a greeting gesture, epitomizing the motto that became her credo, EVERYBODY WELCOME. Plans to create the first local statue in honor of an African-American woman were forged soon after Fannie Mae’s death, but it took nearly a decade-and-a-half of private fundraising for those plans to be made flesh—or bronze. The well-attended dedication ceremony was the latest in a series of belated tributes to a woman who modeled a peaceful way to racial integration.

Everybody Welcome also became the theme of a play, a book, and a PBS television documentary, thanks to the efforts of retired teacher, Kathleen F. Esmiol. She and a group of her students contacted Mrs. Duncan to ask for permission to portray her in a play, which was performed in Colorado Springs and Denver on a number of occasions between 1993 and 1994. The ensuing friendship between the two women led to the 2013 publication of Everybody Welcome, A Memoir of Fannie Mae Duncan and the Cotton Club. Written by Ms. Esmiol, it recounts Fannie Mae Duncan’s life in her own words, and is a poignant and profound portrait of a woman whose ideals we are still striving to achieve today. If it were not for urban renewal, a short walk from Fannie Mae’s statue would lead to the legendary establishment that became synonymous with her—Colorado Springs’ very own Cotton Club.

To retrace Fannie Mae’s life from her roots in the deep South to her blossoming in Colorado Springs is to re-live the struggles of many an African-American family. Her parents were children of enslaved parents and labored as tenant farmers in Alabama, until the family moved to Oklahoma to escape a case of blatant racism. Fannie Mae Bragg was the first of seven siblings born outside of Alabama. After the death of her father, the family eventually relocated to Colorado Springs, where Fannie Mae became the first member of her family to graduate from high school in 1939. She had to forego her dream of attending nursing school because of a lack of funds, working instead as a maid for various employers. She married Ed Duncan, the older brother of a classmate, who worked as chauffeur.

The entry of the United States into the second World War after the attack on Pearl Harbor changed not only Colorado Springs’ fortunes, but also the Duncans’. Camp Carson was founded in 1942 (to be renamed Fort Carson in 1957), and Fannie Mae learned about an open position as a soda fountain operator at the segregated Haven Club. In 1944, she persuaded Ed to help her run a café and snack bar at the newly opened USO club for black servicemen in downtown Colorado Springs. He was an excellent cook and handyman, she knew how to deal with customers and money. The café was an instant success, providing a steady income for the Duncans, as it was one of the few eateries that served blacks, and attracted both downtown workers for a quick bite, as well as local families and travelers.

Fannie Mae dreamed about not only renting, but owning their own business. When the opportunity presented itself that same year to buy a former restaurant, she pleaded with Ed to jump at it. They borrowed money from one of his former employers, a wealthy widow, in order to make the requisite down payment. Duncan’s Café and Bar opened in November 1947, becoming instantly popular. Soon thereafter, Fannie Mae and Ed also opened Duncan’s Lounge on the second floor above the café.

Fannie Mae and Ed regularly journeyed to the Rossonian nightclub in Denver’s Five Point neighborhood to listen to famous jazz performers, which sparked the desire to open their very own. Fannie Mae knew she wanted a grand name, and what could be grander than Cotton Club, in honor of Harlem’s famous but defunct musical venue. She ordered a 20 foot-tall, flamingo pink Cotton Club sign, and was tickled by the notion that it could be seen by all passing cars from the highway that would became I-25.

The Cotton Club was a hit from the moment it opened its doors. Unlike Harlem’s namesake, which featured black performers for white patrons, the Duncans wanted to provide a home not only for black artists, but also for their fellow black citizens, whose social opportunities continued to be limited. Neither the Antlers nor the Broadmoor Hotel allowed black performers or guests. Because many of their patrons were in the military, and had returned home after World War II with foreign-born wives, the Duncans expected a multi-ethnic crowd, and wanted to make them feel welcome. Fannie Mae hired 15 waitresses from various racial backgrounds.

By coordinating engagements with the Rossonian, she was able to book their high-level performers for the Cotton Club also. The Who’s Who of American Jazz performed in Colorado Springs, among them luminaries like Fats Domino, B.B. King, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, and Etta James. It did not take long for white music lovers to show up at the club, and for other local businesses to complain about her channeling white customers away from their establishments, which led to her invitation to the local police chief who told her she “couldn’t mix races,” and to “run it black.” She famously countered with: “I check them for age. Nobody told me I had to check them for color.” He soon changed his mind, likely because of the protests by her white, influential clientele.

Fannie Mae has often been described as a community activist, but my impression is that she did not set out to be a revolutionary. She simply applied the golden rule and treated others the way she wished to be treated, regardless of skin color. While it might not have been the Duncans’ initial intent to make a political statement, the Cotton Club became the first fully integrated enterprise in Colorado Springs. Ed hand-lettered a sign, and Fannie Mae put it into the window: EVERYBODY WELCOME reflected not only the slogan of the Cotton Club, but Fannie Mae’s philosophy of life.

Black performers, regardless of their national or international fame, were still not welcome to rest their heads on pillows in Colorado Springs hotels. It profoundly perturbed Fannie Mae that her musicians had to return to Denver for accommodations. To remedy this shortcoming, in 1952 she bought one of her favorite downtown houses, saving it from demolition. The 1891, 42-room Victorian Mansion was then conveyed to her property in three parts. The Duncans were able to welcome their performers with comfortable lodgings and with home-cooked, Southern-style meals, courtesy of Fannie Mae’s mother. Sadly, Ed died in 1955 due to complications from alcoholism, which might have been triggered by the death of their only child during delivery. He left Fannie Mae a widow at 36.

It seems an inevitable fact of “civilized” society that jealous, evil tongues start wagging at the success of fellow humans. Fannie Mae’s preference for flamboyant outfits, flashy Cadillacs, and Victorian mansions likely did not help, nor did the degeneration of downtown Colorado Springs, with increased levels of crime in the 1960s and 70s. The city decided to sacrifice her Cotton Club to urban renewal and applied eminent domain, and Fannie Mae’s baby fell prey to the wrecking ball in 1975.

She moved away from Colorado for a while, but returned to live in Denver, where Kathleen Esmiol found her and set into motion the events that culminated in the beautiful statue of Fannie Mae Duncan. Fannie Mae died in Denver in 2005 at age 87, not knowing of all the honors that would be bestowed upon her posthumously. One hopes that she had overcome her misgivings about Colorado Springs, where she was laid to rest at Evergreen Cemetery, next to her husband. In death, she remains surrounded by her mother and several other family members.

The mural of Fannie Mae and her Cotton Club shown in the topmost photo graces a wall at 2438 E. Platte Avenue in Colorado Springs. It was dedicated by the Knobhill Urban Arts District Planning Committee on July 5, 2019.

Bitte verzeiht mir, daß es wegen der Länge dieses Beitrags heute keine deutsche Übersetzung gibt.