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Beyond Black and White: Fannie Mae Duncan

When no local hotels would accommodate visiting black entertainers, Duncan bought a mansion and hosted them herself.

When no local hotels would accommodate visiting black entertainers, Duncan bought a mansion and hosted them herself.

Fannie Mae Duncan is a local legend in Colorado Springs. She fostered integration in a gracious way, put the “civil” in civil rights, and lived her
motto: everybody welcome. The late owner of the Cotton Club in downtown Colorado Springs is the protagonist in a play, the subject of a book and the object of a statue.

In her memoir, “Everybody Welcome,” the voice of Fannie Mae rings loud and clear. Because even though she didn’t actually write it, she dictated it. The writer, Kathleen “Kay” Esmiol, became fast friends with Duncan in the 12 years before her death in 2005.

Esmiol, a Colorado Springs English teacher, came to the project in a roundabout way. When urging her minority students to try out for school plays, “they said there were no parts written for them,” she recalls.

“Then write your own play,” I said. Lots of research led her to the story and character of Fannie Mae Duncan; Esmiol tracked her down in Denver. The students wrote Duncan a letter, asking if they could “borrow her life” for their play and Duncan delightedly agreed. 

When the project was finished, Duncan told Esmiol she had always wanted to write a book, but was not a writer. Would Esmiol write it for her? Thus, began a fine friendship, with Duncan spending full weeks at Esmiol’s home, retracing her life.

The book is written in Duncan’s vernacular, so it feels like an autobiography. She tells her story of growing up poor, black and feisty, with dreams bigger than anyone thought possible to achieve.

Duncan came to Colorado Springs to be near relatives after her father died. She attended integrated schools here and graduated from Colorado Springs High School (now Palmer). Her ambition led her to apply for jobs no one thought she would get – but she did. Her career path eventually led her to getting an unlikely loan and buying what became the Cotton Club – named for the Harlem haunt of the same name.

The club started small but grew rapidly under her creative eye. She began to piggyback on big national acts that were coming to Denver. The likes of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Fats Domino, Etta James, Muddy Waters, Louis Armstrong and BB King performed there – “everyone who was anyone in black entertainment,” Esmiol says. “And comedian Flip Wilson got his start there. He was stationed at Fort Carson at the time.”

Much of her club’s clientele was white – at first, soldiers from Fort Carson. Then guests across the street at the Antlers Hotel began coming. The hotel management complained that they were losing business.

The story goes, the city’s police chief at the time called Duncan into his office and said “she can’t be mixing colors – that was the term he used” Esmiol says. “She famously retorted, ‘I check ‘em for age; I didn’t know I had to check ‘em for color.”  After a somewhat heated stand-off, where Duncan invoked the civil rights of her white customers, the police chief backed off.

“When she got word of her victory, she had her husband hand-letter a sign that was immediately put out front. It said, ‘Everybody Welcome,’” Esmiol says.

Not only did Duncan welcome everyone into her club, she also welcomed them into her home. Because there was no lodging available to black entertainers in Colorado Springs in those days, she bought a 42-room mansion and hosted them herself. She also held many community fundraisers there, for all races.

“She was a true philanthropist at heart,” Esmiol says. “She saw beyond black and white.”

In 1975, when urban renewal forced her out of business, Duncan sought but failed to open another venue.  In 1981, she packed her bags and left, ultimately moving to Denver, where she lived most of the rest of her life. There, she worked with troubled teen-aged girls and raised her niece. Duncan had no living children and was widowed in her 30s, never to remarry. 

Duncan was an elegant, imposing woman who treated everyone with respect, Esmiol says.

“She’d be sitting there in my home, telling me her stories, dressed to the nines in hat and heels, and I’d be sitting there in my bathrobe, hunched over my computer, writing like mad,” she recalls.

“She was a remarkable woman, powerful and ambitious, but kind and gracious at the same time,” she says. “She truly never judged anyone by the color of their skin, only the content of their character.”

Esmiol and her book are being honored with the 2018 Golden Quill Award by the Friends of the Pikes Peak Library District at a luncheon on April 28 at the Antlers Hotel.

And Esmiol is involved in a movement to raise money for a statue of Duncan, to be placed at the Pikes Peak Center, near where the Cotton Club once stood.

It will say: Everybody Welcome.

To learn more about the statue project...contact Esmiol at kesmiol@q.com.