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Denver’s Klan era occurred during the “second coming of the KKK,” before World War I through the 1920s, when immigrants, Catholics, Jews, and African Americans were targets. Denver Mayor Benjamin Stapleton was controversial in his own day because of his KKK connections and his doubletalk about them. During his successful 1923 campaign, while he was a Klan member and relying on Klan support, he denounced racial prejudice, writing: “True Americanism needs no mask or disguise. Any attempt to stir up racial prejudices or religious intolerance is contrary to our constitution and is therefore un-American.” According to historian Robert A. Goldberg, Stapleton did so to appease his Jewish and Catholic supporters.
Later, when critics learned Stapleton was a KKK member, a recall election occurred. He then went public, promising at a rally on Table Mountain: “I will work with the Klan and for the Klan in the coming election, heart and soul. And if I am re-elected, I shall give the Klan the kind of administration it wants.”
With Klan backing, the mayor survived recall. However, the next year he balked under the control of the Grand Dragon, John Galen Locke, so when Locke was investigated for tax evasion and jailed, the mayor turned on the police department, fired its KKK chief, and Locke ousted the mayor from the Klan.
Stapleton never renounced the Klan. When NAACP held its 1925 national convention in Denver Stapleton officially welcomed the organization to town as part of his official duties–a courtesy, not an act of redemption. But let’s go beyond assessing his personal morality. Goldberg makes the point, “The issue is that his administration was Klan-ridden. The police force and justice system were Klan-led and used to further Klan ends. This was under his watch. Collaboration is too soft a term to use. His silence encouraged the predators. He had choices. Only his ambition kept him in check.”
Today Denver struggles with what to do about an entire community named for its KKK Mayor. To some, the name Stapleton does not mean anything other than the place where they live or work, or the name of an old airport. Others are unaware of the renaming controversy, or are aware of it but do not care. But to many, the name is an insult to those whose Jewish, Catholic, and African American ancestors suffered under the KKK—whether in 1920s Denver or in other places and times. How do we sort out such complex, personal issues and decide what weight to give each? I found two reports that wrestle with similar questions—one from Yale University and the other from CU Boulder—in which three relevant principles emerge regarding the person, the place, and history:
First, when we judge a person by the mores of a past era, we can balance that with ongoing historical criticism viewed from the present.
Second, it is inappropriate to name a place in honor of a person if the person’s primary legacy fundamentally conflicts with the place’s mission.
Third, if renaming will have the effect, in a meaningful way, of “erasing history,” then there is a responsibility to address that erasure.
Symbols of the KKK are as repugnant now as they were in the past. Today we recognize an ingrained nativist populism that rises from time to time in U.S. history. It attempts to define certain classes as not “real Americans,” or as unworthy of protection and place. We see this today and it was true in Denver’s past as well.
Stapleton was admired because during his tenure significant public facilities were constructed—including the airport, the City & County Building, mountain parks, and others. Those places are not what he is best remembered for today—his complicity with the KKK is. A name should foster community. It should be something around which people can unite with pride and confidence, especially for places we call home and especially for children who use the name every day as it becomes a part of them—the place where they grew up. The conflict between that mayor’s lasting legacy and the community’s purpose is not reconcilable.
Changing the name does not erase history—quite the contrary. It unearths the complex history of the man, the city, and the place. If some feel that changing the name “erases” Stapleton’s place in history, then a commemorative plaque or display could be installed describing the quandary around evaluating Stapleton’s legacy.
Keeping the Stapleton name does nothing to help us learn from the past, to build community, or to face the moral complexities of Denver’s KKK era or our own. Changing the name corrects the ongoing injustice of honoring Benjamin F. Stapleton from generation to generation into the unknowable future.
Jackie St. Joan is a retired Denver lawyer, county judge, law professor, and a writer. She offers this work in memory of Dr. Gregory Diggs, beloved leader of Rename St*pleton for All, who died suddenly on February 24, 2018. Photo via Rename St*pleton for All.