Pioneer Profiles: Fannie Mae Duncan

Fannie Mae Duncan may have arrived in Colorado Springs 50 years after our city’s founders, but she was a pioneer in ways many people couldn’t fathom at the time. She ignored social constructions and paved the way not just for women, but for people of color during a time when Colorado Springs really needed it. She was progressive way before that word became a label, and she advanced the opportunities of marginalized people with grace and subtlety.

Born on July 5, 1918 in Luther, Oklahoma, Fannie Mae Bragg was raised on a cotton farm. She didn’t much like the farming aspect of her family’s business, though, so as soon as she was able she got into the business side, helping her father run a roadside produce stand. By the time most kids were entering elementary school, Fannie Mae could already do the basic math required of just about any money transaction. She became quite savvy at understanding how to turn a profit and how to work a sale for the benefit of the family. Having her father view her with pride was something she worked for every day.

Fannie Mae’s life took a major turn in 1926 when her father died due to complications arising from blood poisoning after a car accident. Fannie Mae’s biggest champion was gone, and she was only eight years old. Because her mother was left with seven kids and no real way to support the farm on her own, the family was forced to rely on the benevolence of relatives until things stabilized.

Frances, Fannie Mae’s older sister, went to Colorado to stay with an aunt and uncle, where she got a job and began sending money home. She liked it so much, and there were so many jobs and opportunities, that soon the family moved to Colorado Springs to join her. They found a little house on Franklin Street, but ended up moving three other times until they found a place they liked on the West Side, “the best side,” according to Fannie Mae’s mother.

Fannie Mae attended North Junior High School and Colorado Springs High School, where she was a top student and athlete. Because the city was still segregated, Fannie Mae was not allowed to compete either athletically or academically with white students, but socially that didn’t matter. She and her younger sister Selena claimed to have as many white friends as black. As far as she was concerned, she was popular because she didn’t care about skin color. She didn’t pay any attention to it.

Her plans to go to nursing college were deferred when she was courted by and eventually married Ed Duncan, whose brother was a cohort of Fannie Mae’s. At six years her senior, it took quite a bit of convincing for Fannie Mae to be allowed to go to a dance with him, and that was with Frances as chaperone. They hit it off, and were married when Fannie Mae was only 19 years old. Ed had a solid job with a pension working for the railroad company, and he was happy; he thought he’d reached the pinnacle of success. Fannie Mae, however, was not as satisfied. She had taken jobs after school as a maid, and had eventually worked herself up the chain until she was cleaning houses in the Broadmoor area for some very rich people, but she wasn’t satisfied being “the help.” She wanted more.

Then World War II started, which shifted the culture of Colorado Springs toward a more military demographic. Fannie Mae took a job as a soda fountain manager at the newly-formed Camp Carson. Granted, it was in the segregated part of the camp, but she was happy to be out of the domestic jobs and into business. Her charm and fast transaction skills re-surfaced as she gave “service with a smile” to young men who might never come back home. Still, she knew there was more out there. From Kathleen Esmiol’s book, Everybody Welcome, Fannie Mae is quoted as saying, “Camp Carson . . . is where I learned that everybody is just folks. You can’t get anywhere if you don’t help each other. Fightin’ wastes too much energy. I decided I should be doin’ even more for the community–it was time to get involved in something new.”

Fannie Mae was offered an opportunity to run a restaurant and bar, and with her savings, a few good references from Broadmoor clients, and Ed’s support, she opened her diner at 25 West Colorado Avenue. For the first time, the profit from her enterprise would go to her and Ed instead of to someone else. She was on her way.

Her contentment with that level of success didn’t last long, and soon Fannie Mae saw her profit potential. She bought the building, then she bought the building next door and put shops in it. Fannie Mae had a nose for opportunity, and she took risks wisely—and only told Ed after she had arranged everything. She figured it would be easier to get his approval and support if he knew she’d already done her homework. So, when she said she wanted to turn the upper floor above the restaurant into a lounge and night club, he didn’t refuse. Instead, he helped her get the fixtures and supplies, and before long, the Cotton Club was born.

The Cotton Club. (Credit: PPLD Digital Media Collection)

Boasting such famous musicians as Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, B. B. King, Lionel Hampton, Muddy Waters, Billie Holiday, and Mahalia Jackson, the Cotton Club was not just a club where people could hear great jazz music, it was a place where nobody was turned away. There was a dress code, and of course an age limit, but what made the Cotton Club a pioneering business was that anyone, regardless of race, was welcome. Fannie Mae not only opened the doors to anyone, she made a point of hiring a diverse wait staff. She knew that many soldiers would be coming home with brides from other countries, and she wanted them to have a place where they could feel comfortable taking their wives out for a nice evening. Of course, she had the support of “Dad” Bruce, the chief of police, so that helped a lot, but right away the Cotton Club became the most popular night spot in the city.

Fannie Mae’s life was not without tragedy. She lost Ed to alcoholism in 1955 when he was only 42, but like a champ she soldiered on. She said, “There’s nothing like focusing on what you can give to others to make you forget what you’ve lost in your own life.” Her thoughts were always on the bottom line, which meant treating her guests and employees like family and making sure everyone’s bills got paid. 

Fannie Mae made a lot of money, but she never considered herself rich. Sure, she dressed to the nines each night to greet guests at the club, and she shopped at the most exclusive stores downtown, but she never forgot the roots of her business acumen—treat people well and they’ll return the favor. “All I ever set out to do with support my family and leave a legacy for them, something for the future. But along the way I learned a whole lot about what really matters in life– the importance of treating everybody the same, lending a helping hand to people in need, and being honorable.”

Fannie Mae always believed in giving back, and throughout her life she sent countless kids through college, paid bills for poor families, and always helped in any way she could. She was a true progressive, never allowing race to decide who got a gift from her. Those in need didn’t have a color. She started a philanthropic group called the 400 Club that raised money for scholarships, kept a food pantry, and made baskets and gifts for needy families during the holidays. It started a tradition of philanthropy within the black community that still lives today.

This enterprising young woman broke the color barrier so subtly that the full impact of the Cotton Club wasn’t realized until years after it closed in the summer of 1975. By then, the social climate had changed and urban renewal became the club’s downfall. The building was demolished, and even though she was offered a new place to start again, Fannie Mae never owned another business. She eventually moved to Denver and passed away on September 13, 2005.

Fannie Mae didn’t set out to be a pioneer of racial tolerance, but history has put her there. She didn’t let anything stop her from making race a non-issue, and she serves as a model of integration practice. In 2012, Fannie Mae Duncan was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame, and she has also been included in the African American National Biography. She said, “When you come right down to it, do you know what I think about color? If everybody would just quit pointin’ fingers and start shakin’ hands, we’d 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?”

Photo By: Lew Tilley, Pikes Peak Library District Photo Archives