Black Lives Matter 5280 distributed 2,500 flyers in Stapleton the night of Aug. 8, 2015. The flyer informed residents that the community’s namesake, Mayor Benjamin Stapleton, had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan and the name “Stapleton” should be changed.
Bianca Pullen, representing the group, says about 25 volunteers participated in this action, and they want to use their influence “to diversify the neighborhood. We will be…calling on others in the community to join with us to engage in conversations with the developers, with the master association…And so, we believe that changing the name and the things that will come from this, will be a part of creating something that’s more welcoming for people of color.”
Stapleton resident Genevieve Swift supports the Black Lives Matter movement and she supports changing Stapleton’s name. Swift joined the Stapleton Community Advisory Board’s Affordable Housing and Diversity Committee a year ago because, she says, “I would like my community to be more diverse.
“We need a name that represents the ideals of the Green Book (the Stapleton Development Plan). There was supposed to be a seamless transition between Stapleton and the rest of northeast Denver. I can tell you, I have a lot of friends who don’t feel comfortable walking the streets of Stapleton. It feels like a gated community and they don’t feel welcome.”
Same issue—14 years earlier
The issue being raised by Black Lives Matter 5280 was brought to the attention of the Stapleton Development Corporation (SDC) by another activist group in 2000. (SDC is an 11-member board of city-appointed volunteers that is charged with preserving the principles of The Stapleton Development Plan. Stapleton land is conveyed by DIA to SDC, whose legal staff places covenants on it requiring that it be developed according to the plan.)
The SDC took that group’s concerns seriously, say Dick Anderson, president, and Terry Whitney, board member (who together have served 25 years on SDC or the Citizens Advisory Board).
Mayor Stapleton and the Klan in Denver
SDC reviewed research on Benjamin Stapleton and the history of the Klan in Denver. SDC records in this time period include a report1 that states Klan membership nationwide in 1920 was 4,000–5,000 “knights,” but due to their vigorous recruitment efforts, membership grew to 3 to 6 million by 1924.
“During this period, Colorado was virtually taken over by the Klan. Although Klan domination meant all minorities were threatened, the Klan in Colorado placed Catholics and Jews high on their list of targets, perhaps because the numbers of minorities of color were relatively small.
“Existing social conditions also helped the Klan. In the 1920s, Denver suffered a sharp increase in prostitution, bootlegging, and prohibition violations; police were inefficient and corrupt. The Klan capitalized on these problems, promising to clean up Denver.”
Most SDC board members were longtime Denver residents who had already spent years advocating for the creation of a diverse inclusive community. They understood the historical context of the city and northeast Denver and took into consideration a number of factors relating to “Stapleton” including:
Most people knowledgeable about Denver history understood that politicians in the early ‘20s had to be members of the Klan to get elected.
Mayor Stapleton served five terms and his accomplishments, according to his file on the Denver Library website, include Denver’s water system, the Valley Highway project, a new airport and the Red Rocks Theatre.
His daughter-in-law, personally known to board members, was living in Park Hill at that time.
The naming resolution
Whitney says Forest City stated very clearly that they needed to use Stapleton as a locator in the marketing of the new development. “There was a certain amount of pressure on the city, and in turn, us, as appointed representatives of different neighborhoods to make sure that this huge infill project was not going to be a bust.”
At the Feb. 2001 SDC meeting, according to the minutes, “Terry Whitney spoke on the Naming Process…After considerable discussion, the Board, by majority decision, adopted a resolution that said ‘…Developing new names (for the individual neighborhoods) should be done in the most inclusive and sensitive manner recognizing the diversity of communities that will live and work in this evolving Denver neighborhood. This policy is expressly not intended to prohibit references to Stapleton as a location for marketing purposes.’”
Whitney now says, “…it took a very long time to come up with that very short resolution because of the diversity of viewpoints and having the master developer at the table and them feeling that a change in the name would significantly hamstring their efforts.” Dick Anderson recalls that there was agreement in the SDC board discussions that the word Stapleton would be used in a small font as a “locator” but not as a primary name and it was expected that the smaller neighborhood names (Eastbridge, Conservatory Green) would gradually be used more, and the use of Stapleton would diminish.
Responses from the newspapers and the Citizens Advisory Board
Multiple articles about the board’s efforts to minimize the use of Stapleton appeared in The Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News in November 2002 (posted at FrontPorchStapleton.com). The content ranged from, “You can’t erase history” to “The name will fade over time.”
In December, 2002, Terry Whitney and Nadine Caldwell, co-chairs of the Stapleton Citizens Advisory Board (CAB) wrote a strongly worded letter to Greg Vilkin at Forest City about their use of “Stapleton” on a holiday card.
“Four of the six panels (on the card) were devoted exclusively to…‘Stapleton.’ We believe the card was inappropriate and insensitive…Stapleton’s association with the Klan remains deep in the collective memory of Denver’s African-American community.
“…Stapleton is viewed in many communities as having been a great mayor…However, Ben Stapleton’s connection with the building of a new community of homes, schools, parks and businesses, where people of all races, religions and ethnic backgrounds are needed and honored, is something different.
The mass distribution of your holiday card went far beyond [locator] use. It sends a message of disinterest of history of the land that you are developing, its residents and the surrounding neighbors. We are disappointed in Forest City.”
After all the discussions between 2000 and 2002, SDC was still left with two basic issues they couldn’t solve. The first was that Stapleton wasn’t then (and isn’t now) a name that is officially recorded anywhere. There was nowhere to go to officially “erase” the name and change it to another one. It’s simply a commonly used reference to a location in Denver.
The second issue is that no one came up with a viable alternative.
Perspectives on the “Stapleton” name today
Those two issues still exist. Stapleton’s Councilman Chris Herndon says he talked to the city attorney who told him, “There’s no legislative action for City Council to undertake. There actually isn’t even a process for naming a neighborhood per se, legislatively. In this instance, the branding, with Forest City being master developer, was their responsibility…how they were going to brand and market and come up with the name for Stapleton.”
“As a Stapleton resident…I think when people think of the Stapleton community, they think the name is based off the former airport…But for me, particularly as an African-American living in this community, I don’t think hate or negativity when I think of the name Stapleton.” And he raises the further question of how a name change might impact the many businesses that have Stapleton in their names.
Terry Whitney, says of the flyers, “It troubles me that some folks raising concerns about this community’s name seem to be more concerned about a dead racist than ongoing gang violence in northeast Denver. The fact that two-thirds of black men nationally are either incarcerated or under the supervision of the criminal justice system or that even here in Denver last year, in 2014, almost 50 percent of Hispanic and Black males didn’t graduate. I just look at the whole thing as misplaced priorities.”
Keven Burnett, executive director of the Master Community Association, Inc. (MCA), points out that the legal names of several of the organizations that make Stapleton work do not contain the word Stapleton. It is not in the legal name of the MCA, though it was added as a DBA (doing business as) to identify where the MCA operates. Stapleton is also not in the name of either Westerly Creek Metro District (the special district that collects tax from Stapleton residents to build Stapleton’s local infrastructure) or Park Creek Metro District (whose main role is to build all Stapleton infrastructure, both regional and local).
Burnett thinks Stapleton is known as a place, not a person. He says the community of Stapleton pays homage to Stapleton as an airport. In keeping with that history, the MCA established an airport theme for the naming of Stapleton pools and oversaw a community process to select those names.
Tammi Holloway, currently president of SDC and an attorney for SDC since 1999, has, in a staff role, been a part of these discussions for 19 years. She observes, “I think we need to be mindful of the fact that just eradicating the name is not enough to reach some of the goals that Black Lives Matters (BLM) has suggested. I think them raising this issue presents an opportunity for a dialogue on the name, the history and the issues/goals that are important to BLM and where we are as a community with regard to racism and diversity.”
Forest City VP Tom Gleason responded with the following email message to a Front Porch request for Forest City’s perspective on the Black Lives Matter flyers, “Forest City and the Stapleton Development Corporation have agreed over the years that the Stapleton name would be used in a limited role as a ‘locator’ (given that it was nationally and internationally known as Denver’s airport for many decades) while we built the inclusive and diverse community envisioned by the citizens of Denver, Aurora and Commerce City who created The Green Book. Over that period of time, we have built eight new neighborhoods on the former airport along with new schools, parks and retail centers—all with new names and without the name of the former airport.”
 “Home-Grown Racism: Colorado’s Historic Embrace—and Denial—of Equal Opportunity in Higher Education” by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic. 70 U. Colo. L. Rev. 703. Copyright 1999, page 9.