Mention legendary businesswoman Fannie Mae Duncan and typically you’ll hear how she helped end segregation by inviting folks of all colors to eat, drink and dance at her Cotton Club in downtown Colorado Springs.
Now, a new memoir confirms her “Everybody Welcome” motto and reveals Duncan in all her depth, from the tragedy that led her family to relocate here in 1933 and the risks she took to start her business to the indignities she suffered due to her race and gender, and her bitter departure from Colorado Springs after the city closed and then demolished her club in 1975.
It’s all included, along with historic Lew Tilley photos and snapshots from Duncan’s personal albums, in “Everybody Welcome — A Memoir of Fannie Mae Duncan and the Cotton Club.”
The memoir was self-published in October by Kathleen Esmiol, who wrote it after a 12-year collaboration with Duncan, who died Sept. 13, 2005, in Denver.
Rather than write a biography, Esmiol, a retired Academy School District 20 English teacher, chose to present it as a memoir written in Duncan’s voice and dialect.
“When you read it, you should feel like she told you her story,” Esmiol said.
That was certainly the case as I raced through its 359 pages. I felt I could hear Duncan’s voice telling the story of her life.
It’s an unblinking account that had me feeling her sorrow at the untimely deaths she endured, made me angry at the racism so routinely practiced, had me rooting for her and left me marveling at how everything unravelled.
Esmiol drew on her long friendship with Duncan to produce a book much more rich in detail, emotion and insight than most biographies deliver.
There’s Duncan as 8-year-old Fannie Mae Bragg, living on a farm in Luther, Okla., in 1926, and experiencing an explosive fight between her parents, Herbert and Mattie Bragg. Then, a few weeks later, she recalls her confusion and fear when her father suffers serious injuries in a car wreck and eventually dies on Thanksgiving.
Before the day is over, her mother would pack her seven children and their belongings and scatter to various relatives’ homes in a jarring transition. There was another abrupt move, this time from Oklahoma to Colorado Springs, after a visit from Aunt Fang Harris, who lived in Manitou Springs and urged Mattie to relocate to the resort town in the mountains.
It was 1933 and Fannie, then 14, recalled being bewildered by the move and how her family drove straight through on the journey because there was no place for blacks to stay on the route.
I was fascinated to read as Fannie visited her brother on his job at the Hiawatha Gardens dance hall in Manitou, got her first glimpse of “the good life” and found herself entranced by the music.
The story follows her through North Junior High and Colorado Springs High School, now Palmer High, as her family continued to bounce from home to home, first east of downtown at 704 N. Franklin St. and 815 El Paso St., and then to 730 N. Pine St. on the west side.
Duncan talks of the struggles of her mother to raise so many children as a widow, taking in laundry and working as a maid in a Victorian home on North Nevada Avenue.
Along with her siblings, Duncan also worked, taking a job as a waitress at Father Divine’s at 25 W. Colorado Ave., near the Antler’s Hotel.
The building would loom large in Duncan’s life when, years later, she would buy it and build her groundbreaking Cotton Club.
I was amazed at her business sense that allowed her to identify opportunities and pounce on them fearlessly. And it was heartening to learn that even in an age of overt racism there were whites willing to lend money and take a chance on a determined black woman.
And I was intrigued by her dealings with Police Chief Irvin “Dad” Bruce, who ordered her to stop letting whites in her club after the Antler’s management complained that her club was hurting hotel business.
“You’re letting them mix, Fannie,” Duncan quotes Bruce saying. “Gotta stop. Run it black.”
Of course, he relented and over the years they had a good working relationship.
Duncan gives heartbreaking accounts of the death of her only baby during childbirth in 1946 and the death of her husband, Edward Roy Duncan. He died at age 42 in 1955 after his drinking problem led to cirrhosis of the liver, leaving Fannie Mae a widow at age 36.
There’s plenty of name-dropping in the book because Duncan hired many of the great entertainers of the day to play her club, including Lionel Hampton, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Sammy Davis Jr., Fats Domino and more.
She also gave an early boost to a Fort Carson soldier trying to break into comedy: Flip Wilson. And I laughed at her account of baseball legend Satchel Paige and his romantic advances toward her.
Duncan is precise about places and details such as how she paid $500 for the contents of the Kress department store lunch counter, where blacks were denied service, and used it in her Cotton Club. But she is vague on dates.
For example, she recalls that her Duncan’s Café and Bar opened in November 1947. It later would be renamed the Cotton Club, but it’s unknown exactly when that happened.
Newspaper accounts don’t mention the “Cotton Club” until 1957 after Duncan erected a 20-foot, pink neon sign at a cost of $4,300. It would become a downtown landmark.
The story does not have a happy ending. The club ran into trouble with authorities. (Gazette archives report that in 1954 the Army made it the first Colorado Springs business ever declared off limits to soldiers because of reports of illegal activities and unsavory characters. The ban was lifted a day later.)
Worse, it became the target of urban renewal efforts in the 1970s and eventually was acquired by the city for $168,000, according to a 1975 Gazette Telegraph interview with Duncan. Her club was closed, she drank a champagne toast to it in August 1975 and the building was demolished.
Ultimately, Duncan took her niece, who she was raising, and left Colorado Springs in 1981. Eventually she settled in Denver, where she spent the rest of her life. It would be years before the magnitude of her business success would be recognized, leading to her induction in the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame in 2012.
Duncan told Gazette reporters she was working on a book as long ago as 1975. I’m thrilled the book finally happened.
Reading it, I really wish I’d had a chance to meet Duncan and tell her story. So it’s great Esmiol did. And because she did, it will appear in the next edition of the African American National Biography, taking her story to a nationwide audience.
Story behind the book
The story behind the book is interesting and included by Kathleen Esmiol at the end.
As a teacher at Eagleview Middle School in 1993, Esmiol was looking for a play that her writing club students could perform. She specifically wanted a project that would include her black students, who felt left out of most student productions. But she was unable to find an appropriate play.
“I decided we’d write a play so our black students would have the leads,” Esmiol said. “I was searching for a character, preferably a living person we could use as the lead.”
She happened to see a video interview with Fannie Mae Duncan on the Pikes Peak Library District cable channel.
Esmiol had her students write Duncan in Denver and ask her for an interview. They went up to meet her and turned their conversations into a play they performed several times in the next couple of years.
And the experience led Esmiol and Duncan to become close friends, ultimately collaborating on the book.
Expert review of the book
Matt Mayberry, director of the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, applauded the Fannie Mae Duncan memoir.
“The book is an important addition to our local history,” he said. “It’s a very personal account of her life. It fleshes out Fannie Mae, who has become an icon, and adds depth to her story.”
The book is for sale at the Pioneers Museum gift shop and at Poor Richard’s Bookstore, 320 N. Tejon St. It sell for $17.75.