Eras­ing Sta­ple­ton’s name won’t end to­day’s seg­re­ga­tion

The Denver Post - - OPINION - By Megan Schrader

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

by gen­tri­fi­ca­tion?

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