Fannie Mae Duncan was the first African-American woman to succeed as an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and community activist in Colorado Springs. She founded the Cotton Club, a jazz mecca where she booked luminaries such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Mahalia Jackson, and Etta James, which attracted a racially diverse following. Local authorities objected to her patrons “mixing colors,” but she defended her nondiscrimination policy because turning away white customers would deny them their constitutional rights. That won the argument, and Duncan displayed a permanent sign in her window: “Everybody Welcome.” Her courageous stand fostered the peaceful integration of Colorado Springs.
Born in Luther, Oklahoma, Fannie Mae Bragg came to Colorado in 1933 with her widowed mother and six siblings. She graduated from Colorado Springs High School in 1938, the first in her family to earn a high school diploma. She then married Edward Duncan and joined the work force. During World War II, she operated the soda fountain at the Haven Club, a facility for black soldiers at Camp Carson. Then she persuaded the city manager to issue her a business license to operate a USO concession in Colorado Springs.
Duncan borrowed money to buy a building to house her dream—the Cotton Club—where she employed a multiethnic staff to welcome soldiers whose war brides were also multiethnic. Gradually, she developed a complex of businesses adjacent to her club.Because racial restrictions in hotels left even celebrity African-American musicians without housing, she purchased an historic 42-room mansion to create luxurious accommodations for them and visiting black dignitaries. One of her guests, civil rights activist Medgar Evers, praised Duncan for facilitating peaceful integration.
As a role model and mentor for less-advantaged youth, Duncan funded college tuitions, cofounded the 400 Club and the local Sickle Cell Anemia Association, and organized major fundraisers to support medical research. She served on many committees, often as the first female member. Colorado Springs’ annual “Everybody Welcome” multicultural festival recognizes Fannie Mae Duncan as a pioneer among women and African-Americans.