Enter the world of Fannie Mae Duncan, Colorado Springs’ godmother of inclusion
As she wrote in her memoir, it started with a letter.
“Dear Fannie Mae Duncan,
“We’d like to borrow your life.”
From that salutation, penned by a group of enthusiastic middle-school students and sent to a vanguard of Colorado Springs’ arts, culture and civil rights, grew an original play.
From the play grew a memoir. Following the memoir came a documentary. And anchoring it all, a friendship that would spur an ongoing effort to unify a city under the now-iconic motto, “everybody welcome.”
“This is the story that is our gift,” said Kay Esmiol, a retired English teacher at Eagle View Middle School who encouraged her students to write that now-formative letter nearly three decades ago. “Fannie Mae would at first be quite stunned by the enormous attention. She would be gracious in thanking people who had helped her.
“What would make her happy would be the way the city is coming together. It wouldn’t be all about her, it would be that what she wanted to see happen, did. . . . She loved Colorado Springs. She absolutely loved this place.”
Esmiol should know. For more than a decade, she served as biographer, editor and confidante for Duncan. Together the pair penned 2013’s “Everybody Welcome: A Memoir of Fannie Mae Duncan and the Cotton Club,” (CHIAROSCURO Press) and today, 14 years after Duncan’s death at age 87, Esmiol is on a mission to honor her friend’s legacy via a life-sized lasting tribute cast in bronze.
Fannie Mae Bragg was born July 5, 1918, in Luther, Oklahoma, the fourth of seven children of Herbert and Mattie Bragg. Duncan wrote in her memoir that when announcing her birth, her uncle Jesse proclaimed: “It’s a girl! Here comes nothin’ but trouble.”
Whether or not that particular piece of family lore is true, what is clear is that from childhood on, Fannie Mae lived life her way. She displayed an early talent for business while working at her family’s farm stand and was the type of student who, despite a talent for mischief, became a classroom leader.
When Herbert Bragg died in November 1926, his oldest children left school to work and help keep the family afloat. But Fannie Mae continued her studies and, despite the tragedy of loss and the challenges of being uprooted from her family home, excelled academically.
In 1929, Fannie Mae’s aunt, Fang Harris, trekked to Oklahoma from Manitou Springs. Harris saw the struggle to keep the family afloat and offered for the eldest child, Frances Bragg, to join the Harris family in Colorado.
Frances seized the opportunity, and after a few years, was established enough to have the clan join her. In the multi-racial neighborhood where the Bragg family settled, and in her years at the integrated Colorado Springs High School (now known as Palmer High School), Fannie Mae’s inclusive nature took root.
In her memoir, she wrote about befriending a veritable melting pot of neighbors, from the Tafoya family to the Rev. Chester Morgan and his wife, Sister Anna.
“Our neighbors were a real mixed group of folks,” Duncan wrote.
‘Grit and grace’
Fannie Mae worked throughout her teenage years as a waitress and housekeeper. She married Edward Roy Duncan in 1939, a year after she became the first person in her family to graduate from high school.
Knowing she wanted bigger things than the service jobs typically held by black women during and after the Great Depression, Fannie took a manager’s job at the Haven Club. A soda fountain for black soldiers at the then-segregated Camp Carson, the spot flourished under Fannie Mae’s care. Along the way, she rediscovered her entrepreneurial flair.
Fannie Mae decided it was time that she and Ed go into business for themselves. She persuaded City Manager Earl Mosley to issue her a business license, and the couple became the proud renters of a USO lunch stand located on Colorado Avenue. As Fannie Mae and Ed’s reputations grew, so, too, did their business.
Before she was done, Fannie Mae would own a series of businesses anchored by the legendary music venue the Cotton Club; convert her personal home into a hotel for African-American dignitaries and musicians who were denied lodging at most white-only establishments; engage in first a legendary showdown and then a longtime alliance with Police Chief Irving “Dad” Bruce; and be credited with helping Colorado Springs maintain a calm course of racial integration and inclusion during the turbulent tides of the 1950s, ’60s and beyond.
“What she accomplished was just her whole philosophy,” said Deborah Radman, a director of the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame (CWHF) and chair of its Brand Awareness Committee. Duncan was posthumously inducted to the hall in 2012.
“It was a really tough time in the era of Civil Rights. She really managed, with all of her grace and her flamboyance and her good nature and her sense of humor, to bring people together despite a lot of odds,” Radman continued. “Being an activist and entrepreneur as a black woman at the time was virtually impossible, and she never let that cow her at all.”
Or, as Esmiol put it: “Grit and grace. That was Fannie Mae.”
Esmiol is, in her own way, a local legend. She’s a petite woman with dark, expressive eyes that alternately peer intently out from under a thick head of hair and dance when she tells stories about her longtime friend.
At Eagle View in the early 1990s, she sponsored the minority club and was a co-sponsor of the Young Writers’ Club. She noticed that, despite their talents, students of color often shied away from auditioning for school productions. When asked, they told her that was because the major shows didn’t include leads who looked like them.
“I said, ‘We’ll just write our own plays, then, and you get all the leads,’ ” Esmiol said. “I said that before I thought it all through.”
With that promise made, Esmiol had to come up with a subject worthy of her students’ time and energy.
“I found Fannie Mae and I thought, ‘Oh my, she is so fabulous!’ ” Esmiol said.
The youngsters agreed and Esmiol gave them their first writing assignment: A letter that would persuade the influential maven of Colorado Springs entertainment to share her history, memories and experiences.
From a series of student-led interviews at Duncan’s home — by then in Denver — an original production dubbed “Everybody Welcome” was born.
“We got her stories,” Esmiol said, grinning at the memory. “They listened to everything and got their scenes. We read to her constantly.”
The production was supposed to be a one-off. Instead, it ended up running occasionally for two years and in three different venues, including Colorado Springs’ former Smokebrush Theater.
And what a story the youngsters had to tell…
Open to all
By all accounts, Fannie Mae Duncan was a force of nature — a strong, smart, self-made woman who feared neither hard work nor controversy. But for all of her myriad accomplishments, arguably what cemented her legacy was the success of the Cotton Club.
For nearly three decades in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, Fannie Mae Duncan ran the downtown music bar that was located just south of the Antlers Hotel. With a lineup that included some of the era’s most visionary artists — think Louis Armstrong, B.B. King, Duke Ellington, Mahalia Jackson and Ella Fitzgerald, among others — and, as Fannie Mae described it in her memoir, “a 20-foot-high sign in flamingo-pink neon,” the club soon became the city’s premier music and dance venue.
Since the closest lodging for her African-American performers was in Denver, Duncan purchased a 42-room mansion and turned it into a haven for visiting musicians and dignitaries.
Whether at her home or in her club, Esmiol said, Duncan believed everyone, regardless of background or ethnicity, deserved to enjoy great jazz. But not all agreed.
Police Chief Bruce called the Duncans to a meeting to discuss the club’s policy of racial integration. Bruce argued that people of different races should not be “mixing” and told Fannie Mae Duncan to stop admitting white people.
“I check ’em for age,” she infamously fired back. “Nobody tol’ me I had to check ’em for color.”
In the end, Bruce not just relented, but agreed. Moreover, from that initial confrontation grew an alliance based on mutual respect and friendship.
And from the chief’s change of heart sprang a sign that became a motto and is now on the verge of becoming a movement: “Everybody welcome.” (See “A legacy cast in bronze,”page 4.)
The Cotton Club was demolished in 1975 as part of the city’s urban renewal efforts. But today, Duncan’s fans and friends are taking steps to honor her legacy, promote her story and perpetuate her mission of equality and unity.
“Female entrepreneurs in the early 1900s were unheard of,” CWHF’s Radman said. “Even in the ’50s, you grew up and you were a housewife. . . . Being a woman of color made it even more special.
“Fannie Mae is the perfect example of the concept of ‘aspire higher than what I learned from my father.’ I feel sort of connected to her.”
Kate Perdoni, a producer with Rocky Mountain PBS who lives in Colorado Springs’ Hillside neighborhood, released late last year the documentary, “Colorado Experience: Fannie Mae Duncan.”
“There are so many people who are still alive who were touched by her,” Perdoni said. “Every single relative, every niece or nephew or cousin, has a lifetime of stories of the giving and her philanthropy and just the way they felt when they were around her.”
Check it out
Kate Perdoni’s hour-long documentary, “Colorado Experience: Fannie Mae Duncan,” is available online at tinyurl.com/RMPBS-FannieMae
Mark your calendar
Who: The Rocky Mountain Women’s Film Institute
What: A screening of “Colorado Experience: Fannie Mae Duncan” and panel discussion with filmmaker Kate Perdoni
When: 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Feb. 7
Where: Hillside Community Center, 925 S. Institute St.
How much: Free
For more details: tinyurl.com/Duncan-Welcome