Fannie Mae Duncan - CSPM

Fannie Mae Duncan

Everybody knew Fannie Mae Duncan – and they knew that “everybody was welcome” at her Cotton Club on West Colorado. Despite the 1935 Colorado Civil Rights Act banning discrimination based on race, many restaurants and bars refused to serve Black patrons. Or, like “George’s Place” on South Tejon Street, made Blacks come to the back door. Duncan stood up to Police Chief “Dad” Bruce when he told her not to “run” an integrated club. Instead, she did things her own way – and by doing so, became a legend.

– From the CSPM Curator of History

Frightened by a racially motivated murder and fearful for their three children, Herbert and Mattie Brinson Bragg fled their native Alabama and settled in Luther, Oklahoma, where Fannie Mae Bragg was born on July 5, 1918. The family prospered as tenant farmers until Herbert died unexpectedly in 1926, leaving Mattie a widow with seven youngsters. Moving to Manitou Springs and living with relatives, Fannie Mae’s older sister sent home her entire income as a maid. Her sacrifice eventually helped the Bragg family escape Dust Bowl Oklahoma in 1933 and seek hope in Colorado Springs.

Due to the city’s visionary founder, General William Jackson Palmer, Fannie Mae attended integrated schools, and the charismatic teenager excelled academically while working afternoons as a maid for Russian Count Benjamin Lefkowsky. Graduating from Colorado Springs High School in 1938 but financially unable to attend college, she served as District Attorney Irl Foard’s maid and married Ed Duncan in 1939. Following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, she became the soda fountain manager at Camp Carson’s Haven Club.

At age 26, Fannie Mae obtained a business license from City Manager Earl Moseley so that she and Ed could operate the USO café downtown. When a 2-story building at 25 West Colorado Avenue was listed for sale, she and Ed purchased it, and after establishing Duncan’s Café and Bar downstairs, Fannie Mae created a nightclub upstairs—the Cotton Club.

Segregationist policies prevented local hotels from accepting Black entertainers as performers or guests so the Cotton Club was the only venue featuring major talents like Louis Armstrong, Etta James, Duke Ellington and B.B. King. Fannie Mae became an important conduit in the music industry’s development. Empathetic toward the military, especially those in mixed marriages, she dignified their service by providing a safe place to socialize. True to her business slogan—Everybody Welcome—she served a racially mixed clientele. Chief of Police Irvin “Dad” Bruce demanded she quit “mixing colors” at her nightclub and “run it black.”  She countered, “I check for age I didn’t know I had to check for color.” Chief Bruce acquiesced and Fannie Mae became the catalyst for Colorado Springs’ peaceful integration during the volatile Civil Rights era.

Although Ed Duncan died in 1955, Fannie Mae operated the Cotton Club until 1975, when it was razed through urban renewal. Known for her business acumen, entrepreneurship, philanthropy, and community service, Fannie Mae served the city she loved for 28 years, achieving the American dream and always making Everybody Welcome.

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