Fannie Mae Duncan’s Cotton Club: Improvisation and Integration

    Set to the backbeat of the jazz that thumped through the walls of her Cotton Club every night, Fannie Mae Duncan's message was loud and clear.

    fannie mae duncan cotton club
    Photo Norman Sams Collection, © Pikes Peak Library District

    Everybody welcome. The sign in the window proclaimed it. And during the 1950s and ’60s, the Cotton Club was “the one place where blacks and mixed couples knew they could have a good ol’ time,” Duncan wrote in her memoir, Everybody Welcome.

    Just as jazz and blues giants-such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Muddy Waters-improvised tunes in her club, Duncan reshaped the standard in the Springs. Her business model proved that peaceful integration was possible and that celebrating racial differences can bring prosperity. Duncan’s success as an entrepreneur shone as brightly as her neon-pink sign, especially as a black female in a predominantly white community. Eventually other business owners realized that “good friends come in every color,” as Duncan put it in Everybody Welcome, and equality became the new standard. Everybody was welcome to sing along.

    jazz singer at fannie mae duncan cotton club
    Photo Lew Tilley Photo Collection, © Pikes Peak Library District

    By the Numbers

    $1 Price of a tie for Club patrons who didn’t meet dress code.

    2.6% African American population of Colorado Springs in 1950 (97% were white).

    15 Duncan’s age when she moved to the Springs from Oklahoma in 1933

    43 Number of rooms in Duncan’s mansion, purchased to host touring musicians not allowed in local hotels.

    1975 Year the Cotton Club was demolished as part of an urban renewal initiative.

    $4,300 Cost of the Cotton Club’s sign