Community grapples with KKK origins of Stapleton neighborhood’s name
“To be honest, I’ve never heard of a community trying to change its name before,” said Stapleton United Neighbors President Mark Mehringer, at a Thursday night meeting, about a proposal to rename the Stapleton neighborhood because of its namesake’s ties to the Ku Klux Klan.
Someone called out to ask Mehringer what it would take to actually change the name.
“I have no idea,” he replied. But he’s trying to figure it out.
Earlier this summer, Black Lives Matter 5280 launched the renaming efforts dubbing the campaign #ChangetheNameStapleton.
Stapleton got its name from the Stapleton International Airport — the city’s primary airport before Denver International Airport replaced it in the mid-1990s. The group of local civic leaders that drew up development plans figured keeping the old airport’s name would be good branding.
The airport, of course, is not what’s controversial here. It’s the airport’s namesake who is causing the furor.
Benjamin Stapleton was a five-term Denver mayor during the 20s, 30s and 40s. A Democrat from the South, Stapleton was widely known as a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan. He denied it during election season. Once he got into office, he appointed Klansmen to lead the police department and other city offices, a history The Colorado Independent covered in August in a story about the launch of the name-change campaign.
Just about everyone who spoke during the public comment section of Thursday’s meeting was sympathetic to Black Lives Matter’s cause.
Jewish resident Bob Segal prefaced his comment by saying he remembered when the KKK used to march down Colfax Avenue every Friday night on Shabbat.
“It’s terrible we’ve still got this name. It’s long past time to get rid of it.”
— Boulder Shows 4 RJ (@SURJBoulder) September 11, 2015
White resident Nathan Woodliff-Stanley said he’s sometimes apprehensive to tell people where he’s from. “I’d like to refer to my neighborhood without mumbling because I’m embarrassed of what it represents.” Some residents who spoke referenced other recent instances of name changing to make a political point. Obama changed the name of Mount McKinley to match its native name Denali, one woman pointed out. And earlier this summer, South Carolina lawmakers ordered the Confederate flag to be removed from the Statehouse flag pole. So there’s some kind of precedent out there. But Tom Gleason — a representative from Stapleton’s real estate giant, Forest City Enterprises — argued that precedent is exactly why name-change is a bad idea. People who live, work or shop in Stapleton know it as Stapleton, he said, and that can’t just change overnight. “You can’t talk about development without knowing where it is,” he said. “There’s really no way of getting around it.” From his company’s perspective, name recognition is too valuable to give up. The community can call itself whatever it wants, Gleason said, but Forest City will keep the name for marketing purposes.
“I’m not here to tell you how to run your business,” local tech entrepreneur Srikant Vasan said, “But you may want to think about this not just in terms of, ‘How do we make this go away?’ but as a way to turn this into positive attention.”
Gleason indicated the company hadn’t done any feasibility studies or cost-benefit analysis.
Black Lives Matter’s name-change petition encourages Denver City Council, not Forest City Enterprises, to change Stapleton’s name. But councilmembers say they have no authority to do so. Of course, they could write a council-approved recommendation that the neighborhood change its name, but Stapleton resident and City Council president Chris Herndon doesn’t foresee that happening for the simple reason that it would accomplish nothing.
Herndon took office this July after running unopposed. He was at the SUN meeting on Thursday, but didn’t speak and left quickly afterward.
Herndon did discuss the issue with The Colorado Independent in late August.
“Something people need to understand is there’s nothing we can do,” he said. “Parks and buildings we could help. But when it comes to neighborhoods, that’s just not our purview.”
When Herndon, who is black, bought a house in Stapleton in 2008, he was well aware of the name’s history. But it didn’t bother him in the slightest.
“I’m not sure Benjamin Stapleton has a legacy of white supremacy,” the councilman said. “That’s the furthest thing from my mind. I think of the old airport.”
Though he respects people’s opinions and encourages civic participation, Herndon disagrees that Stapleton as a community is in any way racist or exclusive.
“When I think about Stapleton, I don’t think of hate at all,” he said. “I think of a community that is embracing diversity, bringing people of different races, ethnicities and economic statuses together.”
Brittany Katalenas, a local affordable housing advocate, sharply contested Herndon’s characterization of Stapleton as inclusive.
“It’s a no-brainer,” she said to Mehringer. “If you want to be inclusive, you need to invite your neighbors to the table. Did you invite Montbello? Did you invite Park Hill?”
In turn, Mehringer, expressed reluctance to broaden the scope of the discussion beyond Stapleton. For one, he doesn’t want to step on other neighborhoods’ turf. And he’s wary the dialog will become over-saturated.
Be that as it may, Mehringer is open to changing the name if that’s what the community wants. His statements throughout the meeting fluctuated between ambivalence and support, impotence and leadership, defensiveness and confidence.
At one point, he said he is “fully in support of the name change.”
As for what that would actually look like, Mehringer explained that SUN is a non-profit that operates according to particular bylaws. Changing the neighborhood association’s registration with both the IRS and the City of Denver would require about 70 percent support from the community.
To gauge that support, Mehringer said SUN plans to send out a survey. There will likely be a section about the name change, in addition to questions about other, unrelated topics. Multi-issue surveys are better, he said, to attract respondents who care about more than just one, passion-steeped question.
Respondents will be asked for their addresses, but without any real means of verification. Mehringer is concerned there will be no knowing whether survey results reflect the will of Stapleton residents and Stapleton residents only.
The survey will be online for a few weeks. Mehringer hopes the project will be wrapped up before Thanksgiving.
After the meeting, Black Lives Matter organizer Bianca Pullen said she was pleased with how the conversation went.
A neighborhood name change is still a long ways away, but Pullen is already thinking ahead to what other doors the campaign might open.
Affordable housing, equity in education and community health are some other issues she hopes Black Lives Matter 5280 can eventually tackle.
“It’s not a matter of if we can change the name,” Pullen said. “We will do it. And then there’s so much more to do.”
Photo by Nat Stein