Once upon a time there lived an elegant, generous woman named Fannie Mae Duncan. She owned a little jazz and blues joint called The Cotton Club, down by the tracks at Sahwatch and Colorado. During the height of the civil rights movement, Ms. Duncan boldly proclaimed "everybody welcome" at her place, regardless of color, creed or background -- and they came. Even in a city not especially known for its diversity or culture, crowds packed the Cotton Club all through the 1950s and '60s, jump, jive and wailing to the best African-American musicians in the country, from Charlie Parker to The Coasters.
And during this time, there lived a photographer of great skill named Lew Tilley, who had the foresight to document the goings-on at the lively Cotton Club, capturing a glamorous, progressive and treasured bit of Colorado Springs history. His collection of monochromatic works depict a culture that we seem to have lost -- where women spent hours perfecting their hair before stepping out with men wearing their best tailored suits, where people from every walk of life drank and laughed together in a setting of music and dancing, where a woman ran the show. People mingled, and the mingling helped form relationships that bettered the city.
Now, decades later, The Cotton Club is long gone but Tilley's photographs and Fannie Mae's generosity remain. The stories of Duncan using her wealth to educate young people, provide for those less fortunate and promote cultural diversity are local legend. And Tilley's beautiful, haunting pictures are part of an exhibition at the Penrose Library, through the end of the month.
On Sunday, Tilley and Ms. Duncan will appear at a reception to share their memories of the fabled Cotton Club and the unique role it played in our town.