Rename Stapleton? Backers say it’s time to dump ‘symbol of hate’

Community will vote this week whether to cut ties to its namesake, ex-mayor Benjamin Stapleton, a KKK member

Stapleton MCA office located on Northfield Blvd in the Stapleton neighborhood. (Photo by Grace Carson)

Updated Monday, Aug. 19, 2019:  In preliminary results, Stapleton property owners have turned down a referendum to change the neighborhood’s name, 65% to 35%, with a turnout of 34%.

It started with a small group of civil rights activists bemoaning the name of northeast Denver’s massive Stapleton community because of its namesake’s ties to the Ku Klux Klan. 

After four years of organizing, those activists and the swells of homeowners in line with their cause have five days left to convince their neighbors to drop the community’s controversial name.

“Denver decided that this piece of dirt was going to be named Stapleton almost half a century ago, and now, community members get to decide if they want to rename it,” says Keven Burnett, executive director of Stapleton’s Master Community Association (MCA), the group in charge of conducting the election, which has come under fire for its handling of the ballots. 

Stapleton is the nation’s largest urban infill project. The land both north and south of Interstate 70 in northeast Denver used to be the city’s airport – named after Benjamin Stapleton, a five-term mayor during the 1920s, 30s and 40s and a prominent member of the Ku Klux Klan who appointed Klansmen to lead the police department and other city offices. 

Urban sprawl in the 1970s and 1980s made airline noise a problem, and Denver’s airport came to require more runways, including longer ones for international flights. Once the city built Denver International Airport on land it annexed farther to the northeast, it entered into an agreement with real estate giant Forest City to redevelop the abandoned expanses of runways, taxiways, hangars and open space at Stapleton into a mix of new urbanist – read “The Truman Show” – residential and commercial spaces meant to serve residents of all colors and income levels. Such diversity was a cornerstone of the city’s plan for the community and directives to Forest City.

The 4,700-acre neighborhood of Stapleton now has a total population of about 30,000. The area is made up of 12 individual neighborhoods, has eight schools, many community pools and parks, and more than 100 retail shops and restaurants. Stapleton’s final neighborhood, North End, is currently being built, and will end the development of the area within the next few years.

Objections first raised back in mid-1990s

Some residents of color and civil rights activists who were aware of Ben Stapleton’s Klan affiliation had started decrying the Stapleton name when redevelopment began in the mid-1990s. Their efforts were revived in 2015 when Black Lives Matter 5280 launched a campaign called #ChangetheNameStapleton. And their ranks ballooned in 2017, inspired by the violence at the white supremacist rally organized by Unite the Right in Charlottesville, N.C. and efforts in several cities to dismantle tributes to the Confederacy. 

“We see ourselves as the latest iteration of community members who object to the use of the name ‘Stapleton,’” said Liz Stalnaker, board chair of the group Rename St*pleton for All. “We are continuing the work that was begun by activists in the ‘90s and carried forward in 2015 by BlackLivesMatter 5280. Our group is not made up of the same people who worked on this in the 1990s or in 2015, and there have been starts and stops along the way. But we are united in the same mission. We do not want our community name to honor a Klansman.”

Rename St*pleton for All leaders initially approached individual stakeholder groups in the community, asking them to drop “Stapleton” from their names. In late 2017 and early 2018, several organizations did: the Stapleton Foundation became The Foundation for Sustainable Urban Communities; the former Stapleton Development Corporation now only uses the acronym SDC to identify itself; and the Stapleton Citizens Advisory Board is now just the Citizens Advisory Board. As part of this effort, the group asked Stapleton United Neighbors (SUN), which Denver recognizes as the official Registered Neighborhood Organization (RNO) for Stapleton, to drop “Stapleton” from its name.

In May 2018, the SUN board asked Stapleton residents to vote on whether to change the RNO’s name from “Stapleton United Neighbors” to “Central Park United Neighbors.” Fifty-eight percent of ballots cast favored the name change, but this fell short of the required 66% threshold needed to make the change.

Rename St*pleton for All organizers next approached the Stapleton MCA when they discovered there was a process for changing the legal name of the whole community within the governing documents of the property owners association, Stalnaker said. In response, the MCA decided to mail out a referendum asking property owners to decide whether they wanted a name change.

This summer, the pro-name-changers have canvassed Stapleton neighborhoods asking for support, handing out fliers with information about the election and Ben Stapleton’s involvement in the KKK. The flier also highlighted voices of community members and others who favor the name change, including Rosemary Lytle, the NAACP state president. “Renaming Stapleton would refresh public memory and support efforts to move forward a reality where all people have equitable access to opportunity,” she is quoted on the flier. “This is not about dismissing the cries of preservationists, but rather about dismissing the specter of white supremacy. In tandem with changing a name, we must also work to change the policies that keep people trapped in a KKK reality.”

In June, Stapleton’s MCA – which is governed by a board of directors and advised by chosen delegates in the community – mailed ballots to property owners on the issue of a name change, also giving them the opportunity to suggest new names. The ballots are due by Wednesday, July 31, and the outcome is expected to be announced in August.

Jeff Fard, better known as Brother Jeff, is a multimedia journalist, historian and community organizer in Denver’s historically black Five Points neighborhood who supports the name change.

“It is time for Stapleton voters to join other neighborhoods and cities all over the country that have taken the courageous step to remove public monuments and markers that are symbols of hate,” he says. “This moment has been decades in the making. I stand firm with Rename St*pleton For All and those who support the name change. They are aligning their values with their vote and are on the right side of history.”

The Colorado Independent was unable to find anyone willing to comment on the record against the name change. 

Still, over the past few years, several city historians have noted that, his Klan affiliations aside, Ben Stapleton had a positive impact on Denver by building major public institutions and setting the framework for several of its boulevards and parks. 

Brother Jeff, in response, said, “Leadership rooted in the exclusion, exploitation and the demise of others will always overshadow any meaningful accomplishments of a mayor who was a proud leading figure of the Ku Klux Klan.”

Some argue you can’t erase history

Some residents in the past expressed opposition to a name change on grounds that it would erase history. 

Jacqueline St. Joan, a former judge who leads Rename St*pleton For All’s legal team, counters that argument by saying, “Do you notice how we’re bringing up history? Have you noticed how people now know this history when they didn’t used to?”

Another argument against renaming the neighborhood is the cost. The MCA of Stapleton – funded by a combination of property assessments, special district taxes and proceeds from the operation of public facilities — estimates that, should the name-change referendum pass, it will have to pay consultants $300,000 to unite members of the community in coming up with new name. 

“There is no alternative name, and someone is going to have to come up with that, and we have 12,000 stakeholders in that process,” says MCA’s Burnett.

St. Joan doubts the accuracy of the MCA’s projected cost. 

“We aren’t AT&T. We aren’t a corporation. We’re just a neighborhood,” she says.

St. Joan – who formerly volunteered as The Colorado Independent’s news poetry editor – says she got involved in the name-change movement because of her roots growing up in 1960s-era Virginia when segregation was prevalent. “I had a kid’s view of the hypocrisy and how it didn’t fit what I was being taught about Jesus and religion and what love meant.”

She says Benjamin Stapleton does not deserve to have the neighborhood named after him and that the neighborhood should have a name that is not hurtful to anyone. 

“The names of places survive. They survive me. They survive you. They will be here for as long as this land is here, probably. So that place in history should not be held by someone who, regardless of what he may have done, was a member of the Ku Klux Klan,” she says. “So, on principle, I think we only want to name places after people who deserve to be honored.”

St. Joan and other members of Rename St*pleton for All have concerns about the way the MCA of Stapleton is conducting the election. 

The group says that MCA had agreed to include a space on the ballot return envelopes for voters to sign as a way to prevent election fraud. But the envelopes MCA sent out included no such space for a signature. Burnett has said on social media that no signatures are needed.

But Rename St*pleton disagreed. “We believe that this instruction is wrong and contrary to the MCA Board’s authorization of the secret ballot, two Colorado statutes, the MCA bylaws, our agreement with the MCA — and common sense,” reads a letter Rename St*pleton for All published on its website and social media on June 26.

Burnett said the decision to leave the space for signatures off the ballot return envelope was intentional, based on feedback from residents who didn’t want their vote to be public or traceable to them. However, a sentence was mistakenly left on the ballot instructions telling voters to include their signatures, which Burnett has advised voters to ignore, via social media. 

He noted that MCA will accept all ballots regardless of whether they include a signature on the envelope.

7 COMMENTS

  1. There are plenty of people that are against the name change. I would surmise that the author only talked to one side: the renaming effort group. Pretty one sided. I noticed in the article that the renaming group didn’t offer up the fact that they tried to take over the MCA neighborhood delegate election last November in an effort to advance their agenda. How transparent is that? (Transparency is what the group claims to want). The group solicited money from some source to pay an election consulting firm on a strategy to run in the MCA delegate election to force this issue. A true waste of money because they only had 2 (out of 11) win; one of the delegate winners never attended or participated in any MCA meetings. That person has since resigned. In order to take over the MCA delegate election, they handed out pre-filled out ballot forms with their candidates’ names. I am glad that the residents of Stapleton saw through their nefarious actions. With that said, the renaming effort threatened to file suit in relation to this community ballot. There was going to be an on-line questionnaire sent out to residents. The anti-Stapleton name group said, “no way…we want a community vote. And if you don’t we will sue..” So $19,000 later, a mailing to each homeowner (and business owner) was sent out. I truly hope that community realizes that is it is just a relatively small amount of social justice warriors trying to influence their vote. We will find out in a few weeks once all the votes are counted to see if they were successful. I hope they are not and the name remains the name. Not because we have to continue to honor the former mayor. but because we have better things to do with our time and money. The renaming group preaches inclusivity but if you voice any opposing view you are immediately called a racist. It actually happened in the June 2019 MCA delegate meeting. All the author had to do is read a few social media threads about this subject over the last 2 years. There, group members and supporters accuse opponents of showing their white privilege and white fragility. I was told personally by one of the group members that “this is how uncomfortable race conversations are conducted.” One final point about this group’s misguided efforts: The neighborhood was named after the airport. The airport was named after Benjamin Stapleton. In the last 15 years of development many businesses took up the name Stapleton (named after a neighborhood/airport in turn named after the mayor). Yet, the renaming group sees no issue with those businesses keeping the Stapleton moniker in their name. What kind of fallacy is that? Shouldn’t any business with the name Stapleton represent the racist mayor in their eyes? Of course the renaming effort group, in their early beginnings, tried to convince businesses to drop the Stapleton name with very limited success. I think one martial arts studio actually did. The group quickly changed tactics once they realized their campaign wasn’t very successful. Now, in their latest social media posts they only want to change the neighborhood name and leave small businesses alone. I actually heard from one such business owner that he absolutely supported the community name change but wasn’t about to remove Stapleton from his business name. “I spent way too much time and money on marketing and developing a client base to change now.” Apparently he doesn’t have a problem voting for a neighborhood name change but has no problem exploiting that same name for his business.

    As stated, I truly hope this renaming effort ultimately is not successful. I know I am not the only one that feels the same way.

    Signed,

    Proud Stapleton Resident since 2007

  2. There are several inaccuracies in the comment above by “Stapleton Resident”. To try to prevent these inaccuracies from propagating further, I offer here a few facts. I am a member of the Board of the Rename St*pleton For All group. Our group has been around for two years, trying to raise awareness about the rename issue. The effort to change the name goes back decades, long before us. Most of us live here, others live or lived nearby or have kids that go to school here; all of us work towards improving our community in ways other than the name change effort. In 2018 we found that the MCA bylaws contain a mechanism for Delegates recommending a name change to the MCA Board. This mechanism was put in place in 2003 because the Stapleton name was controversial from the start and was only supposed to be a temporary placeholder. So we did what most advocacy groups (Everytown for Gun Safety, the NRA) do: we sought out residents who were interested in becoming MCA Delegates and who also supported the name change, and we endorsed them. (This is how a representative democracy works, after all.) We also received a grant from the Denver Foundation to hire an election campaign consulting firm, who recommended providing campaign material that included proxy ballots that had our candidates already selected; the other side of the sheet was a description of the candidate. Voters who chose to use this proxy ballot still had to sign their names and enter their addresses; the campaign consulting firm assures us that this process was completely transparent, ethical and fair. We ran eight candidates and won two districts clearly. In two other districts, the candidates we endorsed received more actual votes from residents, but Forest City, the corporate developer of the neighborhood, owner of the “Stapleton” trademark and largest property owner at Stapleton, determined the outcome in those two districts in favor of the incumbents. Our legal team concluded that Forest City cast these votes in a way that technically violated legal procedures; after much discussion, we decided not to take this matter to court. Then, however, the MCA delegates, in an open meeting that we attended, expressed concern that we would win more Delegate seats this year, and the renaming issue would “never go away.” They decided to force the issue now by holding this rename referendum/vote. We saw early drafts of the ballot language and were shocked at how biased and misleading they were (some included language suggesting that residents would not even be able to informally refer to their own neighborhood as “Stapleton”!), so we threatened to sue over the Delegate election irregularities unless we were allowed to have some input on the ballot wording and election process. That worked, and we were able to make the ballots about as fair as they can be… although removing the signature requirement on the ballot envelope was a unilateral change in the process made by the MCA and not approved by us, which has led to potential problems, as described in the article above. Our plan was never to “take over” the MCA and force a name change on an unsuspecting community. We simply wanted voices in the room that would be taken seriously, so that the MCA would devote substantial energy to educating the community about the issue. We certainly hoped the name would change! But not “at any cost”. Instead, what we got was a rushed vote without any deliberate community engagement. We always opposed a majority vote as a way to decide this issue, in the same way that in 2015 the South Carolina state government actively avoided a majority vote of citizens and instead used votes by democratically elected representatives to decide to remove the Confederate Flag from the front of their statehouse. However, since the vote moved forward, we called upon the grassroots network of supporters we assembled through the MCA Delegate campaign and carried out a thorough campaign to inform voters and raise additional support. While many businesses and organizations have already made the name change regardless of the MCA vote result, we understand the cost to change their names ahead and support those who cannot immediately make that change. We go to great lengths to avoid the perception that we or our supporters are calling any group or individual racist, as that is not our intention, but we do recognize that our society and culture are intrinsically racist, and we believe that the continued use of the Stapleton name when applied to this neighborhood helps propagate that systemic racism. Hearing this statement as an accusation of racism against an individual is, unfortunately, a common misconception. The Stapleton moniker was given to an airport to honor a man who was instrumental in the construction of that airport. The name was never deliberately given to this neighborhood by those of us who live here. The developer did that and used it as its corporate brand. We must remember that this community was founded on aspirations of diversity and inclusivity; the name was meant to be temporary until a time when a more suitable replacement can be found. That time is now.

    • “we do recognize that our society and culture are intrinsically racist,”

      True. Look how hated white people are by “community activists” and academia these days.

  3. I have the new name for the Stapleton Rec Center & it’s a no brainer.

    The Reverend Leon Kelly Rec Center!!!

    What a great way to honor this amazing man who has done more for that community & Denver Metro as a whole than anyone else we could nominate.

  4. Who cares anyway, The KKK was a Democrat Group anyway, so the Dems should acknowledge and embrace that. Stapleton was a politician who knew how to get the votes bac then. Many Police in that period were also KKK members too. You cannot change history so deal with it and move on to another topic to embrace and complain about. These days “racism” and “fascism” are words that are used by the left interchangeably anyways, and by the way, most of the founding fathers owned slaves to include Columbus, thats the way it was back then. Most slaves were sold by their own tribes in Africa or other warring tribes, to get access to guns, and other things. So yes, these things happened. and here we are talking about one politician who was a member of the KKK, back in the early twentieth century.

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