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Why Fannie Mae Duncan deserves recognition 

Across the nation, it seems there are powers that deliberately set out to create divisions among Americans. Sometimes when looking for a road map to move forward, it’s wise and refreshing to remember guiding lights from the past. We Springs residents are privileged to have that model in Fannie Mae Duncan, a historic Springs resident whose pursuit of racial integration through her famous Cotton Club succeeded in spite of seemingly insurmountable odds.

Duncan’s story should be taught in schools in the Pikes Peak region. However, since she’s not a part of your average curriculum, I’d like to introduce you to her. Duncan wrote in her memoir, Everybody Welcome: “When you come right down to it, do you want to know what I think about color? If everybody would just quit pointing fingers and start shaking hands we would be able to put our differences behind us a whole lot faster. That’s what you have to do in business to succeed so why not in life?”

Her motto: “Accept all people, show them equal respect, and always remember to make everybody welcome.”

Born in Oklahoma in 1918, Duncan moved to Colorado Springs at the age of 14 with her mother and siblings after the death of her father, and landed her first job at Father Divine’s, a restaurant for black people. She attended and graduated from Colorado Springs High School (now Palmer), and got married shortly after graduation. While working at Haven Club, a soda fountain designated for African-Americans on Camp Carson (which wouldn’t become Fort Carson until 1954), she dreamed of creating a space where soldiers could bring their wives, many of whom were from other countries. Duncan convinced her husband to borrow money from his boss to buy the old Father Divine’s building, which would become her own Cotton Club, complete with a multi-ethnic staff to create a comfortable atmosphere for everyone.

Among her accomplishments, Duncan booked national acts at the Cotton Club, including Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, B.B. King, Etta James and Muddy Waters. But beyond her business sense, Duncan should be remembered for her amazing courage. She created a feel-good club and dance hall that everyone wanted to be a part of. And when pressed by then-Police Chief Irvin “Dad” Bruce to “stop mixin’ colors,” she contended that it was unconstitutional for him to force her to do so. Her argument that denying white people access to her club went against their constitutional right to be there was so compelling, he backed down, became an ally and made sure the club ran safely.
Kathleen Esmiol, a retired Academy School District 20 English teacher, befriended Duncan in the last 12 years of Duncan’s life in what now seems like an act of fate. In the ’90s, when Esmiol was still a teacher, she wanted the students in her writing club to write a play in which black students could take the lead. Around that time, she saw an interview with Duncan, produced by the Pikes Peak Library District, so she asked her students to write a letter to Duncan, who lived in Denver at the time, to ask “if they could borrow her life” to write their play.

Esmiol says: “We only meant to perform one play; however, audiences loved it and we continued for two years!” When the play was over, neither of the women were ready to quit; there was so much more to tell. So Esmiol helped Duncan write her memoir, which was published in 2013, 12 years after Duncan’s death.

Esmiol has made it her life’s passion to bring recognition to Fannie Mae Duncan and her contributions to Colorado Springs (and the nation) as an entrepreneur, philanthropist and activist. Esmiol worked tirelessly to ensure that Duncan was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame in 2012 and now, after 24 years of dreaming, planning, fundraising and land acquisition, Duncan’s life-size bronze statue, crafted by world-class sculptor Lori Kiplinger Pandy, will be placed in front of the Pikes Peak Center, not far from the Cotton Club’s former location. Esmiol is still fundraising for the sculpture, which will cost close to $100,000 (money she’ll take from her own pocket and her kids’ inheritance if necessary). She hopes to erect the statue on Duncan’s birthday, July 5, 2018. All this, to say thank you to Fannie Mae Duncan for showing us how powerful it can be for us to gather around the things we love and make everybody feel welcome.

If you would like more information on how you can support Duncan’s statue, email Kathleen Esmiol at kesmiol@q.com.

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