Perdita Duncan

“I learned at a very young age that I was a colored girl growing up in a white community and that my name was Perdita Duncan. After that nobody could crush me.”

 –Perdita Duncan, 1980

While cataloging the oral history of Perdita Duncan I fell in love with her family’s story. Perdita was born May 27, 1912 to John and Armeta Duncan.

In 1902 John Duncan organized the New Age, a newspaper “published in the interest of colored people.” The publication of the New Age ended in 1903 after a slump in political interest after the 1902 elections. Shortly after his marriaNew Agege to Armeta in 1907, John went to podiatry school at New York University and became Montana’s first black podiatrist, starting his practice in the Pennsylvania Block.

In her oral history (listen to audio clip below), Perdita talks about her mother waiting tables at a restaurant on Broadway Steet, where many high society met. When Hennessy’s mansion was opened Armeta was hired to sit and stand by in case some of the ladies damaged their gowns, she would be there to sew them up. Armeta was waiting tables at a club in the mountains where the up-and-coming wealthy hung out. Word came for Con Kelley to come back to Butte. Armeta was the one to call him in from fishing and got him ready to come back to Butte where he was appointed president of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company. Con Kelley always was fond the the Duncan family, often sending gifts to them and called upon Perdita’s father to care for him.

The black population in Butte in the 1920s was about 2,000. The ACM had their own private club where black men worked as waiters, ran the club, and were valets to the wealthy men. Women were hired as housekeepers and maids.

When Perdita recalls discrimination in Butte being subtly done. “You were just kep out of certain places and by the time I was coming along, there were still just certain places I couldn’t go and I just never bothered.” She was the only black in grade school and said they couldn’t discriminate against just one person. “I was a ‘D’ and the ‘D’s were pretty well close to the front.”

Perdita Duncan, 1931
Perdita Duncan, 1931

After graduating from Butte High in 1931, Perdita went to Oberlin College because it was the first school to admit Negro women. Perdita did not feel discrimination in grade school, but that all changed once she reached high school. Friends she had been close with in grade school would not have anything to do with her. She didn’t undertand it until her father told her she had to learn to live alone for the rest of her life. Perdita said, “Nothing is too overwhelming that you can’t overcome it.” “I’ve never felt that life was passing me by. I’ve always felt that I know who I am, I know what I am, I know what I can make out of myself.”

Some teachers would not call upon Perdita in class, and there was a white boy who was going to take her to the junior prom, but that type of socializing was not allowed.

After a long career in social services and as a music critic in New York, Perdita retired in 1969 and came back to Butte to care for her aging mother. She found the adjustment of coming back to Butte difficult. She relied on PBS and the New York Times to feed her appetite for society. Perdita continued to write music reviews of community concerts for the Montana Standard until her death in 1985.



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