Guest post: It’s time for Walker Stapleton – and Colorado – to reckon with painful KKK past

Between 1923 and 1947, Benjamin Stapleton served five terms as Denver’s mayor. He gained and retained his office by winning financial and grassroots support from the Ku Klux Klan. Stapleton did its bidding for several years, appointing Klansmen to key cabinet positions.  Jews, immigrants, Catholics, and Blacks paid a painful price.

The New York Times recently reported that a clear majority (58%) of those now living in northeast Denver’s Stapleton community want to drop Stapleton from the name of their neighborhood association. But, as Mike Littwin points out, changing the name requires a 66% majority. Littwin thinks that Denver isn’t ready to address its KKK history. I disagree.

The Stapleton name has been divisive from the start. In 2001, a naming committee restricted the developer’s use of the name Stapleton. Still, it wasn’t until 2015 that Denver residents began to grapple with the city’s KKK history — which it shares with the entire state, whose KKK membership once reached 35,000. In 2017,  the city discovered that Stapleton Park in Globeville was never officially named, and removed the sign. The Stapleton Foundation and Citizens Advisory Board dropped the name. Forest City removed its Stapleton trademark from the 29thAvenue Town Center sign. And the Stapleton Development Corporation now calls itself SDC. Finally, as The New York Times noted, a majority of residents wants to change the name of the community association.

The Times doesn’t link Colorado’s KKK history with Republican gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton, Ben’s great-grandson. Littwin proposes that this is as it should be, because, as candidate Stapleton notes:

  • Ben died before he was born
  • We all have ancestors we could apologize for
  • “I am focusing on the future”

In my view, the Ben Stapleton connection has nothing and everything to do with Walker Stapleton.  Nothing, in that Walker did not and could not have personally supported the KKK: he was not even alive at the time. But everything, if he is indeed “focusing on the future.” To lead the people of Colorado into the future, Walker Stapleton should have the guts and the spine to help us face our white supremacist history —by being a model and doing so himself.

Stapleton is uniquely positioned to do just that. No one is better qualified to assess the damage his great-grandfather’s KKK allegiance caused, not just to his family name, but to the citizens of this state. Instead, Walker lumps his ancestor in with ours, as if we all have white supremacist lineages. Certainly, many of us may question or disapprove of our ancestors’ actions, but for a public figure whose family’s activities have affected the lives of so many Coloradans, Walker’s public hand-washing is simply disingenuous.

A friend of mine recently discovered that her Irish great-great-grandfather bought 70 acres in the Ohio River Valley a year after its indigenous Mingo inhabitants had been forcibly removed. She has the deed to prove it — signed by President Andrew Jackson. My friend visited the stolen land, let its history sink into her heart, and wrote it down for her family and future generations. She researched the Mingo people and their fate.

Absent that tainted real estate transaction, my friend’s life might have been very different. As it was, the value of that land helped her ancestor’s descendants survive the Depression. Ultimately, it allowed my friend to obtain graduate degrees and provide her own children with top-rate educational opportunities.  She questions her responsibility to the people who were harmed by her family history. Should she seek a way, even if only a token, to make amends?  Her German ancestors, furthermore, survived the winter of 1715 thanks to the kindness of Mohawk people in upstate New York.  She wonders how to acknowledge this gift today. These questions are not guilt trips. Nor are they abstract exercises. They are responsible actions, intended to complete a circle that will otherwise continue a downward spiral of unaccountability and the suffering it generates.

Walker Stapleton, for his part, prefers silence. Not coincidentally, a principal tool of white supremacy has historically been not to talk about itself or the damage it perpetuates.  As for Mr. Littwin’s sly reference to “the sins of the fathers and the great-grandfathers and all,” I suggest the gentleman exercise caution when invoking the Bible. Exodus 34:7 warns that “the iniquity of the father” will redound upon his descendants to the fourth generation —which, in this case, includes Walker Stapleton. I read this not as an unearned punishment of innocent offspring, but as an invitation to face and honestly do what we can to redress the moral transgressions of our forbearers. Simply acknowledging the harm done and pledging to use one’s power differently would be a wonderful start.

Walker Stapleton gives himself a pass on all this, but in November, voters need not do the same.

Jennifer Woodhull is a white South African who grew up in the apartheid era. She currently lives in Colorado Springs, where she is working on a late-life PhD and, she writes, “continuing a lifelong mission to repay her debt to oppressed people everywhere.”

Photo via Binshafik, Flickr creative commons

14 COMMENTS

  1. Similarly, it’s time for Jared Polis to reckon with his painful Russian past. From his bio:

    “At the age of 17, he spent the summer in Moscow trading privatization vouchers on the Russian Commodities Exchange, and spent several days as the only non-Russian on the floor.”

    How many ties to the corrupt Russian government does Polis maintain? Given his far-left ideology, is it possible that Polis is actually a Russia-backed Manchurian candidate who plans to shut down Colorado petroleum production to aid Russian’s petroleum exports? Perhaps in much the same way Russia bought off SecState Hillary Clinton to corner US uranium production.

    Jared Polis gives himself a pass on all this, but in November, voters need not do the same.

  2. Reconciling one’s ancestry past is a new cultural development. In the immediate term if Stapleton does not recognize this as having a political affect it will cost him because his family’s legacy is so stark and rather recent. Much of America’s rapid ascent to a world wide empire was through outright exploitation which will be examined as this entire society will go through its examination following this Trump Russia global conspiracy. But this legacy reconciliation is in part of the phenomena of searching genealogy, DNA and laying it over historical events. One note that has always stuck with me is the stunning research that German communities that partook in atrocities in the 13th and 14th centuries against Jews as a blame for the Black Plague were also front and center towards Jews in the 1920s and ’30s while those communities that didn’t partake in those programs in Medieval times also resisted programs in the 20th Century. A phenomena still being examined. So open racism appears to be deeply embedded in subcultures and families, yet it is coming out of the dark corners.

  3. Jennifer Woodhull, A very thoughtful piece. Where we seem to differ is that I think it’s far more important what Stapleton is doing today than whether he addresses what his great-grandfather did a century ago. Stapleton was introduced at the state assembly by the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim Tom Tancredo and has tied himself to the bigoted Donald Trump. As I said, Stapleton’s great-grandfather is the least of it.

  4. While Jennifer Woodhull mentions that Walker Stapleton is a Republican, she—-like Mr. Littwin and the New York Times’ Julie Turkewitz—-fails to mention that in addition to gaining and retaining “his office by winning financial and grassroots support from the Ku Klux Klan”, Walker Stapleton’s great-grandfather Benjamin Stapleton was also a Democrat.

    What a shocking coincidence: a triple-case of simultaneous selective amnesia!

    But maybe, just maybe, it was an honest oversight by all three writers so intent on drawing attention to the link between Republican gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton, his great-grandfather Benjamin Stapleton and the KKK that all three writers simply forgot to mention that five-time mayor of Denver Benjamin Stapleton was a Democrat.

    Or maybe, just maybe, none of the forgetful three wants voters thinking about the mutually beneficial relationship between the KKK and Democrats.

    If, as Mrs. Woodhull suggests, Walker Stapleton should simply acknowledge “the harm done” by his great-grandfather shouldn’t Democrat gubernatorial candidate Jared Polis also simply acknowledge “the harm done” by Democrats’ partnership with the KKK?

  5. Jim,

    You’re very observant.

    Yes, I intentionally omitted the Southern strategy and not only that but I also intentionally omitted the Loch Ness Monster and the Tooth Fairy because none of those things changes the fact that Walker Stapleton’s great-grandfather Benjamin Stapleton five-time mayor of Denver who, according to this article’s author Jennifer Woodhull, “gained and retained his office by winning financial and grassroots support from the Ku Klux Klan. Stapleton did its bidding for several years, appointing Klansmen to key cabinet positions. Jews, immigrants, Catholics, and Blacks paid a painful price” was a Democrat.

    It must be disturbing—-or enlightening—- to see a Democrat so closely associated with the KKK but it is what it is. Unless you’re questioning Mrs. Woodhull’s facts.

    But maybe you are. Think ! I know you can do it !

  6. Someone’s throwing tantrums again. Be nice or you’ll get another spanking.

    After Comrade Chump, Republicans=Bigots.

    Forever.

    It sure would be easier for everyone to keep score if you still dressed in white hoods, but the red hats do help.

  7. Don, what is delightful is that your whole assertion crumbles when just a tiny bit of context is added. Keep feverishly polishing that turd, and have a great day !

  8. Jim,

    What is that “tiny bit of context” you’re referring to?

    Don’t keep this stuff to yourself, share your brilliance with the world! Or at least that teeny tiny minuscule portion of the world that reads the Colorado Independent.

    Years from now people will read your comments and say, “If only Hillary Clinton had Jim on her presidential campaign staff.”

    Yes…….if only(very, very sad emoji).

    You have a great day, too. Stay brilliant!

  9. Don Lopez points out that Stapleton was a Democrat as if that proves something about today’s Democratic party. Let’s just agree that both major parties have changed significantly over their history.

  10. Jim,

    So let me get this straight: You’re now saying that the fact that Benjamin Stapleton was a Democrat has no bearing on what the Democrats stand for today. Right?

    And you’re saying that the fact that he served five terms as mayor of Denver because of “financial and grassroots support from the Ku Klux Klan (who did Stapleton’s) bidding for several years, appointing Klansmen to key cabinet positions. Jews, immigrants, Catholics, and Blacks paid a painful price.” says nothing about today’s Democrats. Right?

    And you couldn’t figure out how to say that until after a comment by John Apel? Really?

    Then what does the so-called Southern strategy you referred to have to do with any of this?

  11. Mr. Apel,

    Thanks for clarifying what Jim apparently had so much trouble saying.

    But why do you think the fact that Benjamin Stapleton was a Democrat was omitted by the author of this article, Jennifer Woodhull, and Mr. Littwin and the New York Times’ Julie Turkewitz in the articles they wrote on the very same subject? Just coincidence?

    And if, as you suggest, the fact that Benjamin Stapleton was a Democrat and a member of the KKK proves nothing about “today’s Democratic party” then certainly it proves nothing about his great-grandson Walker Stapleton and today’s Republican party. Right?

    And do you believe, as Jennifer Woodhull does, that Walker Stapleton has an obligation to, in her words, “redress the moral transgressions of our forbearers.” And do you believe, as Jennifer Woodhull does, that voters should consider Benjamin Walker’s actions when deciding whether to vote for his great-grandson Walker Stapleton?

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