Few people know that Fannie Mae Duncan was a headstrong businesswoman who loved people and pioneered social change in pre-Civil Rights America.
In her book, “Everybody Welcome: A Memoir of Fannie Mae Duncan and the Cotton Club,” author Kay Esmiol explores these changes initiated by the legendary Colorado Springs community activist, entrepreneur and philanthropist.
During an April 20 meeting at the Pioneers Museum, Esmiol told 40 American Association of University Women members that Duncan accepted everyone despite color or ethnicity. Duncan co-founded the 400 Club to assist needy citizens, and bought the historic James Hart mansion in order to provide African Americans with accommodations when visiting Colorado Springs.
However, Duncan is best remembered as the operator of the city’s hottest racially-integrated jazz establishment, the Cotton Club. Duncan welcomed everyone, particularly military service members, for nearly three decades, Esmiol said. The famous “Everybody Welcome” sign that hung in the club’s front window became Duncan’s anthem, Esmiol said.
AAUW members listened intently as Esimol talked about Duncan’s slave grandparents, farmer parents and operating the Cotton Club in the 1950s and ‘60s. Comedian Flip Wilson, singer Etta James and musicians Count Bassie, Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton were among the entertainers who performed at the club.
Esmiol also talked about how former Colorado Springs Police Chief Irvin Bruce disapproved of Duncan allowing all races to mix at the club. When he ordered Duncan to “Run it black,” Duncan replied, “I check ‘em for age. I didn’t know I had to check ‘em for color.” Integration had arrived, Esmiol said.
“That moment probably saw the birth of integration in Colorado Springs,” Esmiol said as a muffled handclap, and “oohs” and “ahhs” from AAUW members, filled the room.
While teaching English and social studies at Eagleview Middle School, Esmiol was approached by the Young Writers Club, seeking to write a play in which minority students in ATOMICS (All Teens Of Many Inspiring Colors) handled the leading roles. Duncan inspired the play.
“They (students) entitled it, ‘Everybody Welcome,’ which was Fannie Mae’s business motto. It is also the way she lived her life, making everyone feel welcome,” Esmiol said.
Esmiol’s voice crackled as she talked about her students having met Duncan. “We went to her house and saw all these wonderful antiques. Fannie Mae always dressed in a hat, heels and jewelry, and we were wearing blue jeans. However, that didn’t matter to Fannie Mae, who loved everyone and loved telling stories,” Esmiol laughed.
The play was first performed in 1993 at a theater in Eagleview, with Duncan in attendance.
“She sat in the front row and was the first one to jump up and give them a standing ovation at the end of the performance,” Esmiol said, smiling.
Duncan died on Sept. 13, 2005. In 2012, she was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame for fostering peaceful integration in Colorado Springs.
In 2017, the Fannie Mae Duncan statue steering committee asked sculptor Lori Kiplinger Pandy to create a life-size bronze statue of Duncan. It is scheduled for installation in front of the Pikes Peak Center for the Performing Arts Oct. 25. A dedication and music festival is set for 10 a.m.–2 p.m. Oct. 26.
In addition to writing the play, students provided “seed money” for the statue, donating about $2,000 earned from the sixth and final play completed in 2005. Titled, “Give ‘Em Wings,” the play centered on cultural icon Rosie the Riveter, who represented women who built airplanes in American factories and shipyards during World War II.
Published by Chiaroscuro Press, “Everybody Welcome: A Memoir of Fannie Mae Duncan and the Cotton Club” is 359 pages and can be purchased through Amazon.com for $25.95.
AAUW co-Vice President of Programs Sally Metzger said, “Kay is a Fannie Mae Duncan expert, has a wonderful reputation and will give a fantastic presentation.” AAUW President-Elect Kathryn Olson added, “Kay is brilliant and knowledgeable and I look forward to her presentation.”
The AAUW is a national organization that works to advance equity for women and girls through advocacy, education, philanthropy and research. Speakers explore issues affecting women, girls and education. Members meet monthly from September to May. Meetings are open to the community.