Property owners in the well-known Denver neighborhood of Stapleton were asked to vote this summer on whether to change the name of their community named for a onetime member the Ku Klux Klan.
Activists argued it wrongly immortalized a racist mayor in office almost century ago. Others said the name was simply a throwback to the airport that once stood in its place.
Overwhelmingly, the property owners chose the status quo for the community, in northeast Denver. They voted 65% to keep its current name and 35% to change it.
A community group called ‘Rename St*pleton for All’ advocated for the change because the community’s namesake, former Denver Mayor Benjamin Stapleton was a member of the Klan.
“Removing the name Stapleton from places of honor in Denver is one small, visible way of making amends for that history,” said Liz Stalnaker, the group’s chair, who said she was disappointed, saddened “but not particularly surprised” by the results of the vote.
Stapleton, the former five-term mayor first elected in the 1920s didn’t hide his membership with the infamous hate group, in fact, it helped him get elected, according to Colorado State Historian William Wei, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder.
The Klan “provided the manpower and money that helped get him elected and he in turn appointed members of the KKK to various political positions,” including the police chief, he said.
Wei said the state was dominated by the KKK during that time period.
It staged regular parades and demonstrations in the city, it and targeted immigrants, Catholics, Jews, eastern Europeans and black people for harassment, or worse.
The neighborhood is part of a master community association, Stapleton MCA.
Keven Burnett, the executive director, said the association’s board wanted to leave the decision to the community.
The results, he said “create a snapshot at this time as to where the community’s feelings really are.”
Based on his conversations with residents, he said he believes those feelings have nothing to do with a Klansman mayor, and everything to do with an airport. “Stapleton prides itself on being a forward-thinking diverse community.”
The effort to change the community’s name goes back to the 1990s, when the community was first built on the 4,500-acre site of what was once the Stapleton Airport – Denver’s aviation hub. The airport was demolished in 1995 and all that remains today is the control tower (now a restaurant), and the name Stapleton.
“Stapleton, the name, is about an airport, a very successful airport, and a lookback at the economic engine of the area for decades,” Burnett said. “There’s not one statue of Ben Stapleton out here.”
In fact, what was one the original airport’s runways is now Martin Luther King Boulevard, which connects Stapleton to Denver’s historically black Five Points neighborhood.
The effort to scrub the Stapleton name from the Denver map has picked up steam lately.
In May, the Denver School of Science and Technology, DSST: Stapleton, became DSST: Montview after a push from its students. And a city rec center with the name also recently committed to changing it.
In April, a Denver-area subdivision called Swastika Acres was renamed Old Cherry Hills after a unanimous city council vote. The community was named before Nazis made the swastika an infamous symbol of hatred, and it’s unlikely the name was widely known, even among residents. The only references to it were buried in legal property descriptions few had likely read in full.
Across the country, efforts to not only change names, but also take down monuments to Confederate soldiers and generals have not come without controversy. In 2017, there were violent, white nationalist-led protests against the city of Charlottesville, Virginia’s decision to take down a statue of Confederate General Robert. E. Lee. That same year, similar statues in New Orleans had to be dismantled in the middle of the night.
Georgia state law prevents the removal of Confederate monuments, so the city of Atlanta responded by adding markers to help put them in historical context.
Wei, the Colorado state historian, thinks Mayor Stapleton should be relegated to history books and museums, but he hopes he’s not forgotten.
“He should be remembered and discussed for the lessons he provided,” Wei said, adding that he understands the concern of those who argue that erasing the names of historical figures with offensive views by today’s standards can be a slippery slope.
“There may not be a line to be drawn, only a discussion to be had.”
As for Stapleton, the community name, Stalnaker, the activist, insists the fight to change it, will go on.
“We have a lot to learn in understanding why folks voted the way that they did,” she said.
But Burnett says the path to a future name change will soon get much more difficult. Stapleton is currently still bound by the rules of the neighborhood’s developer, which make it relatively simple to change the name.
But, In 2021, state law will apply, which requires a majority of the property owners to approve a name change – a steep effort considering just about one-third of the owners cast a ballot in the referendum at all.