Another Northeast Denver group scraps the racially-charged “Stapleton” name

A second civic group in Northeast Denver is nixing the S-word from its name.

The Stapleton Development Corporation voted quietly late last week to call itself SDC, instead.

The April 26 name change comes after another group, the Stapleton Foundation, switched its name to the Foundation for Sustainable Urban Communities in December, distancing itself from the memory of Ben Stapleton, who served as Denver’s mayor from 1923 to 1931 and then from 1935 to 1947. Stapleton was a Ku Klux Klan member who won office with Klan support and appointed several fellow klansmen to top city positions.

It was in his honor that the city’s former airport was named. That name carried over to the 25,000-person community that has been developed on the former airport land since the city opened Denver International Airport to the northeast in the 1990s.

SDC is the mayor-appointed, quasi-governmental agency responsible for transferring that city-owned land to Forest City Realty Trust, Inc., the company that is the community’s master developer.

The name-change movement started when a handful of critics cited Ben Stapleton’s klan involvement in arguing that his name and memory are inappropriate for a community that the city intended, at least conceptually, to encourage integration and inclusivity. Their voices intensified when Black Lives Matter 5280 starting calling broader attention to Ben Stapleton’s biography via social media in 2015, and over the past two years since an offshoot of that group called Rename St*pleton for All organized a series of forums on why the Stapleton name is so hurtful.

Jamie Hodgkins, who lives in the Northfield section of the community north of I-70, is an Anthropology professor at the University of Colorado Denver who has studied symbolic violence. “The use of symbols that are exclusionary, such as terrorist organizations, tug at deeply rooted, negative emotions in people. Basically, for people who were the target of the Klan, the Stapleton name is a symbol that elicits a really negative emotional response,” she says.

“Those of us who moved here with a vision of true integration have been disappointed, to say the least, by how affluent and white it has become. Add to that the fact that it’s named after an avowed racist and you can bet there are going to be residents rising up in opposition,” Gregory Diggs, an African-American who was one of the community’s earliest homebuyers, told The Colorado Independent shortly before his death earlier this year.

Over a series of meetings, the multi-racial coalition of name-change supporters persuaded SDC Chairman Patrick Teegarden that a change was necessary. Over coffee and donuts at Thursday morning’s meeting, Teegarden raised the possibility of following the lead of the foundation by nixing the word “Stapleton” from its name. Denver Parks and Recreation Executive Director Happy Haynes, an SDC board member, made an unexpected motion to formally enact the name change, and her motion passed with two of the board members who were there abstaining.

“What this does is enable us to not be seen as part of a problematic symbol,” Teegarden said. “We can now get off our plate the idea that the name Stapleton is offensive to some people, and we can move on to issues we need to focus on like affordable housing.”

“We’re seeing movement on this issue here and people are realizing that the name can be dropped,” Hodgkins added.

A fuller measure of public sentiment will be taken May 15 at the annual forum of Stapleton United Neighbors, the community’s neighborhood association. That group will be asking residents via paper ballot whether to keep its name or change it to Central Park United Neighbors after the massive city park built east of the old airport’s control tower.

Should the neighborhood association nix the S-word as the foundation and development corporation already have, there’s no telling whether residents will keep referring to their community as Stapleton, choose another name for the development as a whole, or start using the names of their smaller neighborhoods instead. The problem with the third option is that, even though Forest City gave those neighborhoods names during the planning process, most residents now living in them are clueless about what they are.

“I’ll be damned if I know what ours is called,” Teegarden said. “Maybe I’ll just have to say I live in the community formerly named after the KKK member.”

Forest City, in the meantime, quietly has started removing some signs bearing the name Stapleton in furtherance of an apparent change in its marketing strategy.

Questions about Ben Stapleton’s legacy likely will persist this year not just in the community named after him, but also in the political realm should the former mayor’s great-grandson, Walker Stapleton, snag the Republican Party’s nomination for governor in the June primary election. When running for treasurer in 2009, the newcomer proudly touted his great-grandfather’s civic contributions. But this election cycle, as Ben Stapleton’s KKK allegiances have become far more widely known and controversial, the candidate has stayed mum on the issue.

Photo of a Denver-area KKK rally circa 1924-1925 courtesy of Denver Public Library’s digital collections.