Everything about the life of legendary Colorado Springs businesswoman, Fannie Mae Duncan, roared togetherness.
It wasn’t just that she owned the first jazz club in the city to welcome black and white patrons in a time of segregation, or that she took on the male-dominated business world in 4-inch heels; she did it by combining entrepreneurship and art. Saturday, hundreds of people gathered to dedicate a bronze statue of Duncan in her mid-30s, outside the Pikes Peak Center for the Performing Arts.
The statue was erected at 190 S. Cascade Ave., just a stones throw from where her jazz venue, the Cotton Club, once stood on West Colorado Avenue between Cascade and Tejon Street. Speakers included Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers, sculpture artist Lori Kiplinger Pandy, Pikes Peak Community College professor Regina Lewis and Kate Perdoni, a documentary-maker for Rocky Mountain PBS.
One of the first places in Colorado Springs to say “Everybody welcome,” the Cotton Club challenged the segregated norm of the ’50s, and attracted talent such as Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Duke Ellington. For nearly 30 years, Duncan ran the joint and built the block up to include several other businesses — a hair salon, barbershop, barbecue restaurant and record shop. That ended in 1975 when the city took over the property through eminent domain and tore it down as part of an urban renewal program.
“This exciting and wonderful experience began with the incredible story of how a little girl, daughter of sharecroppers, with an indomitable spirit, a keen mind and a beautiful smile, grew up to become a philanthropic businesswoman in an era where such achievements were seemingly unlikely,” Kiplinger Pandy said. “Instead of talking of change, she simply was the change.”
Nearly 40 extended family members from as far as South Africa joined the ceremony to honor their late relative.
“We need to love everybody,” said Claudean Bragg-Brooks, Duncan’s niece. “We grew up in this town together, and it’s all about love.”
Duncan graduated from the integrated Colorado Springs High School (now Palmer High) in 1938, the first in her family to get a diploma. She went on to serve at the segregated soda fountain at what was then Camp Carson and, after a few years, decided to go into business for herself at age 26. Duncan bought the building that would become Duncan’s Cafe and later the Cotton Club at 25 W. Colorado Ave., across from the Antlers hotel, when she was just 28. But it was the way she used music as a vehicle for change, said project manager Kay Esmiol, that made her special.
“Our collective desire to promote what is good and true about our community and to speak toward a narrative we can relate and aspire to is what stirred this cascade of wonderful events ...” Perdoni said to the crowd. “Nothing meaningful is ever about looking good. The real experiences you have and the people you have them with, and the space that’s created for people to come together and grow and thrive without prejudice has nothing to do with money or keeping up appearances.”
Duncan died in 2005 at the age of 87, but those honoring her legacy said they hope her influence will continue to spread, and that Colorado Springs will be known as a place where “everybody’s welcome.”
“Business and art can often have a difficult time coexisting ...,” Perdoni said. “But it can work. And Fannie Mae knew that. And she created something that was somehow separate from commerce. It was a community that raised all kinds of people.”