Fannie Mae Duncan (1918–2005) was an entrepreneur and an activist for racial equality at a time of segregation in Colorado Springs. From 1947 to 1975, she owned and operated a series of businesses including the Cotton Club, the city’s first racially integrated nightclub, which hosted jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Mahalia Jackson. Today Duncan’s open-hearted legacy lives on in the city’s annual Everybody Welcome Festival.
From Farm to Frontier
Fannie Mae Bragg was born on July 5, 1918, to Maddie and Herbert Bragg in the farming community of Luther, Oklahoma. Originally from Lowndes County, Alabama, Herbert had moved his wife and children to Oklahoma for safety after a young relative was lynched. Fannie Mae got her first experience in business while helping her father sell produce at their roadside stand. It was there that Herbert taught Fannie Mae to treat all paying customers with respect, a lesson that stayed with her. Herbert Bragg died in 1926, leaving behind his wife and seven young children. In 1933 Maddie Bragg moved the family west to Colorado Springs, where the Bragg children attended their first integrated schools. The city had no legal system of segregation, though like many places it had accepted customs regarding where whites and nonwhites were supposed to live, work, eat, and play.
Not only did Fannie Mae earn good grades throughout her schooling, but she also got along well with classmates of all races. She hoped to attend Langston College in Oklahoma. After graduating from high school in 1938, however, she learned that her family could not afford to send her to college and that having a high school degree opened few new doors for a black woman. Putting her dreams on hold, Fannie Mae went to work as a maid, and in 1939 she married Ed Duncan, who was six years her senior.
Colorado Springs experienced an influx of soldiers after Camp Carson opened in 1942 to train soldiers for World War II. Tired of being a maid, Fannie Mae found a new job managing the soda fountain for black soldiers at Camp Carson. She had learned the restaurant business working as a teenager at Father Divine’s, a downtown restaurant that catered to black workers, and at Camp Carson she quickly gained a reputation for friendliness and generosity. She also turned a tidy profit, and that gave her the confidence to convince the city to issue her a business license and partner with her husband to take over the café at a USO servicemen’s center for black soldiers in downtown Colorado Springs. As news of their fried chicken, cornbread, and banana splits spread, their customer base spread from soldiers to the local black community.
After their success running the USO café, the Duncans decided to go into business for themselves. They acquired a building on Colorado Avenue—the former home of Father Divine’s—and in November 1947 opened Duncan’s Cafe and Bar, which was packed from its first day in business.
A Woman on a Mission
For her next project, Fannie Mae Duncan built a business empire catering to the black community. She opened a barbecue behind the café, then bought the building next door and used the extra space for a barbershop and shoeshine stand, a beauty parlor, a cigar store, and a record store. She also started a lounge in the space above the café.
Duncan’s dream was to run a premiere nightclub such as Denver’s Rossonian Lounge. In the early 1950s, the dream became a reality when she transformed her upstairs lounge into the Cotton Club. The club was an immediate success. Unlike other venues in Colorado Springs, Duncan booked black performers and was able to attract musicians who passed through Denver by offering a second gig nearby. Soon the Cotton Club was drawing both black and white patrons who wanted to see the greatest jazz acts of the day, including Duke Ellington, Fats Domino, and Etta James.
When the police chief learned about the Cotton Club’s mixed crowds, he asked Fannie Mae to turn away white customers. She resisted, asking whether the police chief would stand behind her if she were sued for refusing to serve whites. He said yes. As news of the club’s new segregation policy spread, however, the police chief received so many calls from irate white Cotton Club customers, he soon relented. To further establish the club’s open-door policy, Fannie Mae put a large sign reading “Everybody Welcome” in the window. The Cotton Club became the first integrated major business in Colorado Springs.
Other businesses were slow to follow Duncan’s lead. She soon realized that even though she was able to book some of the biggest musical acts of the era, many local hotels would not rent rooms to black musicians. Instead, they had to drive back to Denver after their performances at the Cotton Club. Her solution was to buy a spacious, forty-three-room Victorian mansion, have it moved to land she owned closer to the Cotton Club (at 615 North Corona Street), and host the musicians under her own roof. Her mother, Maddie, moved there as well and cooked classic Southern comfort food for the guests.
Unfortunately, while Fannie Mae threw herself into her businesses, her husband, Ed, was descending into alcoholism. In 1955 he passed away from complications of alcoholism, leaving Fannie Mae to run the Cotton Club and other businesses on her own. Despite her personal setbacks, her businesses continued to thrive, and she became well known in Colorado Springs for her generous charitable giving.
Later Life and Legacy
The opening of the integrated Cotton Club heralded a new era for civil rights in Colorado Springs. Yet ironically, as was the case for the Rossonian Lounge in Denver, the success of the civil rights movement sent the club into decline. When Colorado Springs’s major white venues and hotels, such as the Broadmoor and the Antlers, started to book black performers and serve black patrons, the Cotton Club no longer monopolized the market. Meanwhile, post–World War II suburbanization hollowed out the customer base for downtown businesses. In 1975 Duncan closed the club’s doors for good before an urban renewal project demolished the entire block—over her strong objections. She attempted to open the nightclub at a different location, but her efforts were short lived and she eventually retired to Denver with her sister Louis. She died on September 13, 2005.
In 2012 Fannie Mae Duncan was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame. In 2018 Rocky Mountain PBS produced an hourlong documentary about Duncan to mark the centennial of her birth, and in 2019 a bronze statue of Duncan was unveiled at the Pikes Peak Center for the Performing Arts, near the former site of the Cotton Club. Duncan’s legacy is celebrated annually in the Everybody Welcome Festival in Colorado Springs, which is named for the words she posted in the window of her nightclub.