A decade ago, Walker Stapleton’s last name was an asset when he ran for state treasurer. But by the time he ran for governor in 2018, his great grandfather’s membership in the KKK had become a liability.
Never mind that Walker Stapleton never knew Benjamin Franklin Stapleton, the former mayor of Denver. Or that the Klu Klux Klan didn't consider the mayor much of a loyal soldier. Or that the city would name its airport after the mayor, and the name would stick when the area was surrounded by homes.
Residents of Stapleton have talked about renaming their neighborhood and even held a vote last year to delete the name. It failed in part because there was no suggestion for what the area would then be called.
But now the movement to rename places or remove statues of men who once owned slaves or slaughtered native Americans or shared some unsavory part of history has moved at the speed of light.
It was sparked by the death of a black man, George Floyd, while in the custody of Minneapolis police officers in May. Transcripts of their encounter show Floyd said, “I can’t breathe” more than 20 times as an officer knelt on his neck, and also called out for his mother and children. Those words haunt those still protesting his death.
And so Stapleton, the neighborhood built on land where once an airport stood, is going to be renamed, possibly to honor local historical figures of color, or the area’s aviation history.
All this reminds me of a phone call I received from Andrew Hudson, the spokesman for former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, back when I was a reporter for the Rocky Mountain News. Hudson had accompanied the mayor to an event featuring the first residents to buy homes in Stapleton, which included a gay couple and an interracial couple.
Hudson said the mayor got into his car afterward, turned to him and said, “Ben Stapleton is rolling in his racist, homophobic grave.”
Webb, Denver’s first black mayor, was much kinder and gentler when Stapleton closed in 1995 with the opening of Denver International Airport. He issued a proclamation calling it “Stapleton family week in the city and county of Denver.” It was Ben Stapleton, after all, who saw the potential for what aviation could mean for the city.
“WHEREAS,’ the proclamation reads, “Mayor Stapleton’s courage and vision in the face of extreme criticism at the time regarding the airport’s location and expense was borne out over the next seven decades.”
Little did Webb realize then that the “extreme criticism” aimed at Stapleton would continue for years after the airport closed.
History has a horrible way of catching up with people who, as the saying goes, failed to realize or rectify that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
“People are complicated,” Walker Stapleton said when I interviewed him. “Legacies are complicated.”
Indeed they are.
Walker Stapleton married a Catholic, a principal target of the KKK in Colorado. And his late, beloved godfather was gay.
I really started paying attention to the Stapleton neighborhood when my friend Tustin Amole decided to move from her tiny abode near Washington Park. We viewed all kinds of models and talked to all kinds of happy owners in Stapleton before she bought her house in 2004. We held some of our Academy Award parties at her home until both of us decided we didn’t want to be driving at night.
We knew the history of the area but didn’t give the name much thought.
I mean, it’s Stapleton. The place is cool. I envied her great neighbors and small yard and all that candy that is handed out on Oct. 31.
Jenna Stapleton, the wife of Walker Stapleton, visited the Botanic Gardens with friends in 2010. She wore a “Stapleton” button, and people asked her if she was lucky enough to live in the neighborhood. They didn’t realize it was a campaign button.
Stapleton won the Republican primary and went on to become state treasurer. Eight years later, on a different campaign trail, his ancestor’s KKK past was part of the narrative. The New York Times wrote, “Family history haunts GOP candidate for governor in Colorado.”
The stories that mentioned Ben Stapleton’s membership in the Ku Klux Klan didn’t mention his membership in the Colorado Democratic Party. His great-grandson believes that if his great grandfather had been a Republican that would have been noted and I think he is right.
Ben Stapleton served five terms in office, although not consecutively. He entered in 1923 and left in 1947, with a two-year stint as state auditor in between. His career in politics ended when he lost the 1947 mayoral election to Quigg Newton.
Walker Stapleton said he supports changing the neighborhood’s name if it “brings more equity, fairness and opportunity for all Denver residents and, specifically, Coloradans of color.”
When the idea of changing the neighborhood’s name came up, Tustin thought the area should be called Westerly Creek, which runs through Stapleton.
She’s not excited about the nine names an advisory committee came up with for the residents to vote on, but she has no say in the matter. Tustin moved to Cortez last year.
The names are, with brief descriptions provided by Denverite:
- Mosley – after John Mosley, a Tuskegee Airman from Denver who attended Manual High School, and his family
- Meadowlark – after the bird species
- Concourse – reimagining the word so it suggests “a coming together of people, where paths meet and rebuild”
- Peterson – after Helen Peterson, a Cheyenne-Lakota activist and lobbyist who worked at the University of Denver
- Central Park – after the park in the neighborhood
- Skyview – after the natural beauty surrounding the neighborhood
- Randolph – after Daddy Bruce Randolph, a Denverite and cook who helped provide free meals for the community
- Park Central – after Central Park
- Tailwinds – for “moving forward”
Tustin said if she were to vote, she would pick Mosley in honor of John Mosley and his wife, Edna Wilson-Mosley, who helped co-found the Colorado Women’s Bank.
“The Mosleys were tireless in their commitment to the community and dedication to civil rights,” she said. “I had the privilege of meeting them back when I covered the city of Aurora for the Rocky Mountain News. I can think of no one more deserving of the honor of having their name replacing that of one with a shameful legacy.”
After the first round of voting, the finalists were whittled to four: Central Park, Mosley, Skyview and Concourse.
The winning name will be announced Aug. 1, but I have a feeling the neighborhood will be referred to as Stapleton for a long time.