Erasing Stapleton’s name won’t end today’s segregation
Stapleton, Denver’s huge and growing masterplanned subdivision, is in the throes of a difficult debate about race and segregation and Colorado’s historic ties to the Ku Klux Klan.
The brownfield redevelopment in the far northeast corner of the city is dogged by the perception that it was developed for and marketed to upper-middleclass white Americans when the abandoned airport became a subdivision in the mid-2000s.
Driving that perception is the fact that the community is significantly white yet surrounded by historic neighborhoods that are, or are close to being, minority majority.
Stapleton’s two largest census tracts are 82 percent white, according to 2015 U.S. Census Bureau estimates. Just across the street, west of Quebec, the neighborhood is 51 percent white. The entire city of Denver is about 76 percent white.
Could the name of the community itself be perpetuating the divide? Probably not.
But there’s no denying former Denver Mayor Benjamin Stapleton was the type of deplorable politician willing to hitch his career to a racist band of hooligans able to get him elected — and today’s president makes it hard to pass up an opportunity to smack down such a legacy.
Not only was Stapleton a member of the Ku Klux Klan in 1923 when he was first elected mayor, but once in office he bowed to pressure from the Klan to appoint its pick for police chief. When Stapleton survived a recall effort, the Klan burned a cross on the top of Table Mountain to celebrate.
How did such a man get his name on the former airport that once occupied the land that today still carries his moniker?
Stapleton was largely responsible for building the airport — opponents of the scheme called it Stapleton’s folly. He broke ground on Denver’s picturesque City and County Building and he paved the way for development of Red Rocks Amphitheater. His nickname became Builder Ben.
He ruled this then-cowtown for a combined 20 years during parts of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s.
The conversation occurring now in Stapleton about stripping his name from the community should be a lesson to modernday politicians — there is a price to pay for your untoward allegiances.
And ramifications can be farreaching.
This debate will haunt Benjamin Stapleton’s great-grandson, who is running in the Republican primary for governor in 2018.
Colorado Treasurer Walker Stapleton is, through no fault of his own, tied to this conversation about his family legacy. If Stapleton wins the GOP nomination, unscrupulous liberal super PACs will target his family history and try to tie the Republican to Donald Trump’s own special brand of racism. Of course, such campaign ads would be political hogwash, based on fiction, and harmful to legitimate conversations about racism like the one occurring in Stapleton.
That doesn’t mean, however, they wouldn’t be effective.
Ultimately, the community in Stapleton — holding meetings now as the Stapleton United Neighbors — will have final say on the question of whether to keep the name.
But I think this city should remember Stapleton for what historians Robert Goldberg and Phil Goodstein have characterized as a politically expedient association with a despicable and cowardly group. According to those scholars’ works, Stapleton’s run with the Klan was short-lived. Less than two years after the group had helped him get elected, Stapleton severed ties, pushing out the police chief he had appointed and breaking up Klan corruption in the police force.
In 1925, Stapleton officially welcomed the NAACP to town and the city hung banners in honor of the conference.
Just because we allow his name to stand doesn’t mean we have to forget, or forgive.
Northeast Denver is in the midst of a crisis, fueled by the extreme segregation of the area. This debate about a name is a proxy battle for the much more difficult question: How do we as a city deal with the lasting segregation of our communities and schools that is being exasperated