Honoring Fannie Mae Duncan

With a documentary premier and a statue celebration coming soon, we talk with PBS producer Kate Perdoni about what we can learn about race relations and the arts from a historic Colorado Springs changemaker.

It’s been 100 years since Fannie Mae Duncan was born, and the centennial of the entrepreneurial businesswoman and social changemaker is being recognized in multiple ways for her groundbreaking contributions to Colorado Springs. This fall brings both the debut of a PBS documentary episode of Colorado Experience and the celebration of a bronze statue of Duncan at the Pikes Peak Center.

Duncan most notably made her mark on local culture and history through her Cotton Club, which brought the hottest musicians of the 1950s and 60s to Colorado Springs. Duke Ellington, BB King, Lionel Hampton, Billie Holliday and Fats Domino all performed there.

Such a venue was revolutionary in this era of segregation. In Colorado Springs, African-Americans were forced to sit in the back of movie theaters, were barred from eating at most restaurants and bars, and couldn’t get a hotel room in town. In this environment, Duncan’s Cotton Club was a welcoming place for African-Americans and gave them access to some of the most exciting musical acts in the country. Beginning with soldiers from Camp Carson, white residents started coming to the club so they could hear the music and dance too. After a showdown with the chief of police who accused her of “mixing colors” in her club, Duncan stood her ground and asserted that the Cotton Club was for everyone who was of age and who wanted to be there. She placed a sign in the window declaring, “Everybody Welcome.”

fannie mae duncan cotton club facade
Fannie Mae Duncan’s Cotton Club in 1970. Photo © Pikes Peak Library District.

Duncan passed away on Sept. 13, 2005. A sculpture of her likeness is expected to be completed in 2019 and will be placed in front of the Pikes Peak Center, near the site of the former Cotton Club.

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We sat down with Rocky Mountain PBS producer Kate Perdoni to ask more about Duncan’s life and legacy and her upcoming episode of Colorado Experience: Fannie Mae Duncan.

How did you get involved in this documentary about Fannie Mae Duncan’s life?
Kate Perdoni: This spring I was added to the Colorado Experience documentary team at Rocky Mountain PBS, where I have been working for four years. I immediately knew I wanted to create an episode about Fannie Mae Duncan and the Cotton Club. A few months earlier, Kay Esmiol, author of the Fannie Mae memoir [Everybody Welcome], had presented the idea of a bronze statue of Fannie Mae to the Public Art Commission. At that meeting, she gave me a file of information to study, and I kept it on my desk at work. The more I discovered about Fannie Mae, the more her story became a larger pathway to understanding Colorado Springs and the African-American experience. Being asked to create an episode of Colorado Experience was perfect timing for a great opportunity. Our community is eager to have this story told, and to recognize and uplift the legacy of Fannie Mae.

What do you think Duncan’s historical significance is to our community?
Fannie Mae Duncan was an absolute trailblazer, so the list of firsts is long. Nearly everything she did in her life was a first, for her family, her community and/or for Colorado Springs. As the granddaughter of slaves and the daughter of Alabama tenant famers, Fannie Mae’s life contains the arc of recent American history. She was the first child in her family to graduate from high school in 1938. Historically, Fannie Mae operated the first integrated business establishment in Colorado Springs, and brought incredible jazz artists and entertainers to the city for nearly 30 years. Her accomplishments are even more starkly contrasted by the fact that the Cotton Club opened in 1948, when an African-American woman’s perseverance in the local business world was essentially unheard of.

Whenever she reached a roadblock in society, she neatly and surely hopped over it. For example, hotels did not accept nonwhite guests. When the entertainers she hired had to drive to Denver’s Five Points neighborhood after gigs in order to book a hotel room, Fannie Mae was ashamed. She purchased a mansion and converted it into a hostelry so that artists could spend the night in Colorado Springs. When her young nephew died from polio here, she brought Mahalia Jackson out to do a benefit to raise money for an iron lung for the city. When folks were down on their luck or couldn’t get a loan because of redlining, she stepped in to serve as bank, friend and landlord. The list is truly endless.

former employees of cotton club
Rocky Mountain PBS’ Kate Perdoni interviews former Cotton Club employees Lenora Hendricks and Clarence Threatt. Photo courtesy of Kate Perdoni.

What does her story reveal about the history of race relations in Colorado Springs?
Fannie Mae’s story is a snapshot of the history of race relations in Colorado Springs. On one hand, she was able to attend and graduate from an integrated high school as class treasurer in 1938. On the other hand, she was barred from participating in many school activities, and was frequently unable to shine in her true talent in a variety of contexts because she was African-American. Once she graduated from high school, her diploma did not equal greater opportunities outside of those she’d already held as a maid.

She got her start in the business world operating the segregated soda fountain at what was then Camp Carson. She later welcomed all military personnel, as well as their foreign wives from other cultures, as part of a successful integrated night club in an era of de facto segregation. Other local businesses refused her, like the linen service she sought to wash her club’s towels. At the same time, her strong alliance with the chief of police helped to protect and encourage many of her causes.

So her story is an exhausting compound of hope intertwined with overwhelming racism. The most notorious example is likely the way the club came to a close. In 1975, unable to buy her out, the City declared imminent domain on the Cotton Club via its urban renewal redevelopment efforts. Her buildings were deemed “blighted” and were torn down in order to make way for new commercial businesses.

What are some of the things that you learned about Duncan that you most want to share with our readers?
I think the main takeaway is Fannie Mae’s overall ethos and drive: If the reality you want to live in doesn’t exist, create it, and refuse anything less. She did this in the face of high stakes, and with a lot to lose. We should all be so brave.

fannie mae duncan biographer kay esmiol and kate perdoni
From left: Fannie Mae Duncan biographer Kay Esmiol and Kate Perdoni in the Duncan-Hart House. Photo courtesy of Kate Perdoni.

As a musician and artist yourself, how can we honor Duncan’s legacy in our current arts and music scene in town?
Fannie Mae’s story can serve as a reminder to maintain integrity and diversity in decision-making and city planning so that there is space for everyone, not just one mentality or way of being. Much like in 1975, a fear of visitors or those holding money getting the wrong impression of Colorado Springs contains the possibility of limiting our notion of inclusivity, and discards a lot of expansive cultural experiences in attempt at a more—what some see as unified, others homogenous—approach.

The punk, hardcore and DIY [music] scenes in Colorado Springs are some places where I see a lot of diversity, and people working really hard to be inclusive and to make sure everyone is brought to the table and has a voice. In 2018, it’s not enough to “try” to be inclusive and diverse, or to simply have those as idealistic intentions. You’re either doing it, or you’re not.

Join the Celebrations

Colorado Experience: Fannie Mae Duncan Screening

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Oct. 23, 6 p.m.
Stargazers Theatre, 10 S. Parkside Dr.
A free, preview screening of the upcoming documentary with live jazz music and a Q&A with producer Kate Perdoni is sold out, but there is a waitlist.

Colorado Experience: Fannie Mae Duncan Airs

Nov. 8, Part 1, 7:30 p.m.
Nov. 15, Part 2, 7:30 p.m.
Rocky Mountain PBS
The episode will be available for streaming after it airs at rmpbs.org/coloradoexperience.

Fannie Mae Duncan Sculpture Celebration

Nov. 14, 5 p.m.
Pikes Peak Center, Studio Bee, $55
Join artist Lori Kiplinger Pandy and the statue’s advisory committee in a celebration of the first stage of the project. The evening will include music and door prizes.

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