Denver’s Ku Klux Klan past lurks in Stapleton neighborhood’s name; activists say change it

Denver’s Ku Klux Klan past lurks in Stapleton neighborhood’s name; activists say change it

Northeast Denver’s Stapleton residents awoke to thousands of fliers posted around the neighborhood: “Did you know? Your neighborhood, Stapleton, was named after KKKlansman #1,128, Benjamin Stapleton.”

Black Lives Matter 5280 is organizing the name-change campaign and launched a Change.org petition that has already garnered over 1,200 signatures.

“As a community it is time to heal the historical trauma of our city,” one signer commented.

“I am signing because tolerance towards old racism allows room for new racism,” said another.

The idea has been floating around for awhile, said organizer Kenny Wiley. “But then it became clear we could actually do something about it. And we wanted to start with the fact that a lot of people just don’t know.”

Stapleton was named after Benjamin Stapleton, a five term mayor of Denver during the 1920s, 30s and 40s. Stapleton was a Southern Democrat and a well-known Klansman who denied his membership during his campaign. Once he got into office, he appointed Klan members to run the city and the police department. 

Historian Robert Goldberg wrote the definitive book on the era — “Hooded Empire: The Ku Klux Klan in Colorado.” According to his account, the KKK had its hand in nearly every pocket of state and local government. The Klan championed protecting old-time American values, lambasted Prohibition-era crime and rejected the high-fallutin,’ amoral new style of dance.

The KKK’s grip on Colorado politics ensured discrimination against blacks, Catholics, Jews and every other non-white, non-Protestant group. The organization burned crosses, bombed buildings, and kidnapped and beat up people of color.

Local historian Phil Goodstein thinks tying the name “Stapleton” to the most horrific brand of white supremacy misses the mark.

No doubt the era was fraught with racist hysteria, Goodstein told The Colorado Independent, but he takes it all with a grain of salt. 

“Black Denver has created an ornate mythology modeling the Colorado Klan after the South,” he said. “It was more a money making scam than anything.”

The KKK charged recruitment fees, collected membership dues and sold paraphernalia. The social buy-in and the funds it yielded all fed the political machine, but Goodstein thinks that machine was always more interested in business than violence.

“The KKK was a tool of the corporate elite in Denver,” he said. “Police were no more brutal or vicious then than they are now.”

That is to say, Goodstein sympathizes with the Black Lives Matter 5280 cause. He just doesn’t think Benjamin Stapleton is anything special, because he’s far from the only racist politician out there. Government is still just as racist as it was, according to the historian. 

All that’s changed is that overt racism is no longer socially acceptable, Goodstein said. That’s why today’s politicians use coded language including hard-line anti-immigrant rhetoric, “welfare queen” imagery and tough-on-crime law enforcement strategies.

“[Stapleton] was a conniving, deceitful, opportunistic politician. And the city keeps naming buildings after politicians basically in his shadow. We should keep his name there to remember how bad he was and how the system operates.”

Bianca Pullen, another Black Lives Matter 5280 organizer who used to live in Stapleton, would prefer not to be reminded of Denver’s KKK past.

“My grandma was alive for all that, so driving through Stapleton, that goes through her mind,” she said. “It goes through my mind. And it all adds up.”

But the pain isn’t only a memory, she said. It’s an everyday reality in Denver. That’s why Black Lives Matter 5280 is after more than just a name-change in Stapleton.

“The name itself is terrible,” Pullen says, “but when we think about Stapleton as a community, they have a ways to go in incorporating and welcoming diverse residents.”

Black August, a month for remembering, celebrating and creating black history, is as good a time as any to start moving in that direction, Pullen said.

“We want to participate and ask residents, ‘Well, jeez, all the residents look like you. Is that great for your kids?’ It’s an uncomfortable conversation to have, but we’re happy to start it.”

Stapleton became a neighborhood in the mid-90s. It had been home to Colorado’s primary airport until Denver International Airport was built. Then a private group of local civic leaders drew up a master plan for turning it into a livable neighborhood.

Jun1993-StapletonAirportDenver

Now, Stapleton is defined by rows of identical-looking housing developments and several pedestrian-friendly hubs for shopping and dining.

The community prides itself on its commitment to sustainability, boasting 90 percent participation in a voluntary recycling program, LEED-certified buildings and plenty of green spaces. A Light Rail station will connect Stapleton to downtown Denver when construction is finished in 2016.

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African-Americans make up just under 10 percent of Stapleton’s population as of 2013, according to U.S. Census data compiled by the Piton Foundation. Compare that to around 13 percent in Denver as a whole. 

Damon Knop chairs the housing and diversity committee on the neighborhood association board.

Stapleton United Neighbors (SUN) has not taken an official position on the issue, as many of its members have been out of town in the last week, he said.

“There were a lot of bona fide reasons that businesses and the developer chose the name,” Knop wrote The Colorado Independent in an email. “Most simply is that everyone knew where it was as the old airport and that businesses might lose some name recognition. But the causes that want it changed will not love that answer and legitimately so.”

Knop agreed that Stapleton is perceived as racist.

“I know as a community we obviously don’t have any of the characteristics that Mr. Stapleton showed as a Klan Member,” Knop wrote. “We need to open more doors and change some of the perception that we have.”

Knop noted that he speaks for himself — not for the board as a whole, where he’s heard many varying opinions expressed.

Rocky Mountain Black Conservatives ridiculed the Black Lives Matter attempt to change the neighborhood’s name.

“What are we doing here, folks? Really?” the release asks. “Do we now have to begin going from town-to-town, county-to-county, state-to-state across America and start the process of expunging any and everything from public site that any individual or group of individuals do not like or find offensive?”

RMBC emphasized that Stapleton’s reign was in the 1920s, 90-plus years ago.

“It’s time we all —black, white, pokadot, tall, short, balding, bad breath, … whatever — grew a thicker skin, worried about our own backyards and stop investing time and energy into everybody else’s,” the Rocky Mountain Black Conservatives release states.

The closing line summarizes the organization’s sentiment: “Get over it already.”

stapletonThe Stapleton legacy — or its name, at least — still lives on in state government. Republican Walker Stapleton is currently serving his second term as state treasurer. His press office declined to comment on this article.

And as for the obvious question — well, what should Stapleton be named instead? — Pullen said Black Lives Matter 5280 hopes Stapleton could be renamed after a woman of color who made significant, historical contributions to Denver.

Justina_FordJustina Ford’s name has been mentioned as a possibility. Ford was a Denver-area OB-GYN in the same era Stapleton was mayor. She served a diverse clientele — often women turned away from traditional hospitals — out of her Five Points home.

African Americans were barred from joining medical associations and working at hospitals at the time, but in 1950, the Colorado and American Medical Associations let her join.

She was the first licensed African American woman doctor in Denver, affectionately nicknamed “the Lady Doctor” by her patients.

But Ford is only one of many options for the neighborhood rename.

Pullen said Black Lives Matter 5280 is all about democracy and community participation, so she envisions more suggestions will arise in the coming weeks.

In the end, she hopes it can be put up to a vote before bringing a specific proposal to city council.

 

Update August 18, 2015: The August 18 meeting of Stapleton United Neighbors referred to in the original article has been cancelled.

 

Feature graphic via Black Lives Matter 5280. Embedded photos (in order): USGS aerial view of Stapleton airport in 1993, public domain, via WikiMedia; Stapleton streetview by Brett VA, creative commons, via Flickr; Walker Stapleton via stapletonforcolorado.com; Justina Ford, public domain, via WikiMedia.

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About the Author

Nat Stein

Nat Stein is a Denver-based reporter. Check out her other work at Cipher magazine, KRCC public radio, Jacobin magazine and In These Times.

3 Comments

  1. Michael Goolsby on said:

    While they are at it, work on changing the name of Speer Boulevard, for the other prominent KKK member in Denver City Government.

    Robert W. Speer was a former mayor of Denver and the first one who died in office back in 1918.

  2. Katherine Bauer on said:

    So why did people elect Walker Stapleton when his great-grandfather was so corrupt and in the KKK? I hope to heaven we don’t get Walker Stapleton as our governor. He has sounded a lot like Trump with his hate directed toward immigrants. I heard him say something about Sanctuary Cities. He will be a terrible governor, and let’s hope Jared Polis wins the Primary and defeats this horrible man who is related to the Bush family in Texas, that means George W. Bush, his father and who knows who else in the family is as bad or worse than George W…the man who started wars and has caused so much suffering and death in the world.

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