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Gladys Duncan, 108, Dies; Activist, Opera Singer's Wife

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 15, 2005; Page B07

Gladys Duncan, 108, the elegant, charming and formidable civic activist and the wife of Todd Duncan, the celebrated baritone, died March 9 at her home in Washington. She had arteriosclerosis and cardiac arrhythmia.

Mrs. Duncan, a former elementary school teacher, spent many years supporting the work of her husband, the original Porgy in the Gershwin folk opera "Porgy and Bess" and the first black performer to join the New York City Opera. His refusal to sing to whites-only audiences in Washington led to the desegregation of the National Theatre and other area theaters.

Gladys Duncan spent years supporting the work of her husband, Todd, and as a Washington activist. (Lacke Studio)

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She also settled into a career of activism, and in time the roster of her civic involvement became a running joke in her family.

"Washington is the only city where I am Gladys Duncan's husband," Todd Duncan once said.

For years, she was a Democratic Party volunteer and participated in Community Chest drives. In 1955, she became the first black member of the Woman's National Democratic Club. She walked picket lines to desegregate such places as the Peoples Drug Store at 14th and U streets NW.

She disclosed one of her favorite tricks to integrating eateries: "If you could speak another language, they were afraid not to serve you, because they thought you might be diplomats."

In the 1950s, she was president of the Washington chapter of Americans for Democratic Action and vice chairman of the Democratic Central Committee.

For the Democratic National Committee, she was a delegate to presidential nominating conventions in 1956, 1960 and 1964. She used her position to fight for civil rights, contesting the seating of the Mississippi delegation in 1956 and advocating the seating of the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964.

She also pushed for a home rule plank in the Democratic Party platform. "She was the mother of all young black politicians during home rule days," said Julian Dugas, the District's first city administrator.

Nancy Gladys Jackson was born Sept. 19, 1896, in Charlottesville, where her parents were teachers.

She settled in the Washington area after attending a boarding school near Charlotte. She graduated from Dunbar High School and Miner Teachers College, and then taught at Wilson Elementary School, among others, until 1941.

She met Duncan in the early 1930s when she was in the choir of Washington's Plymouth Congregational Church. Duncan was brought in to aid the group, and he evidently found one member irresistible.

"After one meeting," Mrs. Duncan recalled, "Mr. D. maneuvered so I would be the last out of the studio. And he said, 'Do you mind if I kiss you?' A year later we were married."

She accompanied him on his tours and became, in many ways, his protector. She scoured London for sour grapes to treat his cold before a singing engagement. She defused many of the hostile personalities they encountered while traveling in the segregated American South.

"We don't believe in ugliness, but our rights," she once said.

In 1958, she moved to Crestwood, then a largely white and affluent neighborhood in Washington. Her prominence in artistic and Democratic circles -- she was close to civil rights lawyer Joseph L. Rauh Jr. -- and their affluence smoothed their transition into Crestwood, Dugas said.

There, Mrs. Duncan championed the general uplift of her community and is perhaps best known for working to block a gas station from coming into the neighborhood.

She was also remembered for the lemon pound cake she brought to every meeting of the neighborhood association.

Her first marriage, to Dr. Charles A. Tignor, a medical inspector for the D.C. schools, ended in divorce.

She was married to Todd Duncan from 1934 until his death in 1998. Duncan adopted her son from her first marriage, Charles T. Duncan, who became the District's corporation counsel and dean of Howard University's law school. He died in May 2004.

Survivors include a grandson and two great-grandchildren.

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