The Stapleton neighborhood will keep its name for the time being despite critics’ arguments it venerates a former Denver mayor who was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
According to the results of a local referendum to change the northeast Denver neighborhood’s name, which were released Monday afternoon, about 65% of eligible property owners voted against cutting ties with its namesake, former Denver mayor Benjamin Stapleton. The five-term mayor, who served from 1923-31 and 1935-47, was a member of the violent white supremacist group.
About 10,550 residential, commercial and apartment property owners were eligible to vote, according to the neighborhood association, Stapleton Master Community Association. Renters were not allowed the vote. Turnout was an estimated 35%, according to the results.
The referendum did not offer voters the choice of a new name for the community.
The U.S. has been reckoning with its tributes to racist leaders, especially since 2014, when police shot and killed a black man in Ferguson, Mo., and a white supremacist later opened fire inside a black church in Charleston, S.C. In the years that followed, citizens toppled memorials to Confederate leaders who fought for slavery in the Civil War.
In Stapleton, the effort to scrub symbols of a racist past has taken a different form. Local organizations have stripped Stapleton from their names. A charter school, DSST Stapleton, part of the Denver School of Science and Technology network, changed its name to DSST Montview, after a campaign led by students.
A backdrop to these institutional name changes has been a campaign to do away with the neighborhood’s name. As early as the 1990s, civil rights advocates sought to change a neighborhood name they viewed as a symbol of hate and bigotry. The effort was revived most recently in 2015 by a local Black Lives Matter organization, which inspired a pro-name change community group, Rename St*pleton for All, to champion the referendum.
“We are disappointed and saddened by these results,” said Liz Stalnaker, a board member with Rename St*pleton for All. “We are grateful to those in our community who did reach out to their neighbors and had patient, honest, and brave conversations about whether our community name should continue to honor a Klansman.”
The neighborhood was named after the decommissioned Stapleton International Airport, which was named in honor of the Klan member who spearheaded its construction. The airport was demolished in 1995 to make way for an urban infill project that is now Stapleton, a well-to-do neighborhood with a mix of residential and business properties and open space.
Not everyone was on board with the name change. According to news reports and online forums, some residents feel the name is only loosely connected to Stapleton, who, some say, benefited the city in many ways, including helping to build Red Rocks amphitheater. One resident speculated the effort had a political purpose to disparage former state treasurer and Republican gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton, the great-grandson of the former mayor.
Another concern has been the potential cost of the name change.
The Stapleton Master Community Association, which drew criticism from a pro-name change community group for deciding not to require signatures on the ballot return envelopes, estimated it would have cost $300,000 for consultants to help come up with a new name. Voters also rejected a special assessment, such as a tax or fee, that would have helped pay for the name change 80% to 20%.
The board will likely discuss the vote at its Aug. 21 meeting.
This story was updated Monday night to reflect a more detailed history of the name-change campaign.