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Deaths of three notable civil rights activists mark the passing of an era

click to enlarge Fannie Mae Duncan was pure style. Her Cotton Club - became almost as famous as the names she drew there.
  • Fannie Mae Duncan was pure style. Her Cotton Club became almost as famous as the names she drew there.

During the 1950s and '60s, the Cotton Club on West Colorado Avenue provided an oasis of great jazz and racial unity in Colorado Springs. The sign outside said it all: "Everybody Welcome."

Three decades after the jazz club's 1975 demolition, an era has passed with the recent deaths of two of the city's most respected civil rights leaders. Fannie Mae Duncan, the Cotton Club's proprietor, passed away at 87 last month. The Rev. Milton Proby, an outspoken pastor at St. John's Baptist Church who ministered here for almost five decades, died in May. He was 75.

Duncan and Proby both provided "a place where African-Americans could frequent, feel comfortable and not confront the issues of racial discrimination," says Norvell Simpson, a longtime resident and civil rights activist who knew both of them well. "They contributed to this community, and didn't ask the community for a whole lot of things."

The September death of Al "Chickenman" Wallace, 63, a formerly homeless Vietnam vet who became a tireless champion of the city's needy as founder of the Good News Foundation food and clothing bank, also signifies a great loss for the city, Simpson says.

All three, he says, "were givers."

"That's what separates them from the majority. The dollar cannot buy their contributions."

But while Simpson mourns the losses, he expresses joy that another Colorado Springs leader in the fight for civil rights, Steve Amella, recently received a successful emergency liver transplant and likely will live.

click to enlarge The Rev. Milton Proby led St. Johns Baptist Church - through nearly five decades.
  • The Rev. Milton Proby led St. Johns Baptist Church through nearly five decades.

Amella worked for disadvantaged minorities alongside Simpson in the Community Action Agency during the 1970s, when Simpson was executive director there.

Amella says he's rebounded from the enfeebled condition he found himself in for much of the past year and a half.

"I'm very blessed," he says. "You've got a lot to do, and not much time."

Amella expresses hope that he'll soon be back to helping Colorado Springs' League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) chapter, which he helped form.

He joined Simpson in expressing condolences for Proby, whom he says "made people more aware" of racial injustice, and Duncan, who "was an icon in the community and very instrumental in change."

Wallace, known as "Chickenman" for giving away chickens to hungry families, "picked up where others left off," Amella says. "He got into the action by putting things on the table. He was a doer."

Wallace's Good News Foundation will continue operating.

"We're going to keep it alive," says Delores Martinez, the foundation's new director. She remembers Wallace as a man who saw through racial barriers. "Regardless of race, he'd help."

click to enlarge Al Chickenman Wallace was a tireless champion of the - citys needy.
  • Al Chickenman Wallace was a tireless champion of the citys needy.

Amella says Wallace, Proby and Duncan compare to departed Hispanic leaders such as Col. Tom Martinez, who has a District 11 school named after him.

Since Proby's death, activists have worked to honor him by renaming Fountain Boulevard "Milton E. Proby Boulevard." Last week, the city rejected the application, infuriating Simpson.

"I'm very angry," he says. "If it's someone [that the city government] wanted to change the name of the street for, they'd do it."

Senior City Planner Steve Tuck, who advised against the proposal, maintains that "the general welfare is not served by having a cost of $30,000 [to change the street name]." Tuck also cites widespread community opposition to the idea.

"Colorado Springs has a lot of growing up to do in terms of being diverse and recognizing that," says Les 'Syl' Franklin, Duncan's nephew. "That's one of the reasons I live in Denver."

Franklin, a businessman and nonprofit organization founder, says his aunt, who also spent her final years in Denver, should be recognized for operating the Cotton Club and other businesses in Colorado Springs "at a time when black people were still being lynched."

"If they want to name something after someone," he says, "Fannie Mae Duncan should be looked at."

-- Dan Wilcock

  • Deaths of three notable civil rights activists mark the passing of an era

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