“KKKpleton” is the name Denver activist Aaron Johnson prefers to use when he talks about the neighborhood others call Stapleton. Johnson, who also goes by the moniker Ukulele Loki, spoke at the August 15 Stapleton United Neighbors (S.U.N.) meeting in a renewed effort to change the name of Stapleton.
Inspired by recent efforts to remove historical symbols of racism in Charlottesville and other Southern cities, Johnson drew a parallel to Denver Mayor Benjamin F. Stapleton. Stapleton joined the Klan in the 1920s, when the KKK was a powerful business and political force in Denver, in order to get elected to his first term. The KKK burned crosses on South Table Mountain in celebration.
“I invite you all to do something really bold and be a force for good,” continued Johnson. “It’s time we take the Stapleton name down.” Johnson suggested Justina Ford as a new name, inspired by the first African-American female doctor in Denver, who called Curtis Park home.
Johnson’s remarks drew applause from a number of Denver activists who attended the neighborhood meeting.
S.U.N. chair Amanda Allshouse strenuously objected to Johnson’s promotion of the KKKpleton designation, saying “Any tying of this community in any way to anything of that nature is incredibly offensive.” Pointing to the neighborhood’s response to the racist graffiti at Isabella Bird Community School last year and efforts by S.U.N. to address diversity issues, Allshouse reaffirmed the community’s ongoing commitment to inclusion.
Neighbors and visiting activists also discussed the challenges of changing the name, which include the cost to small businesses, the fact that Stapleton is used as a locator but is not an official municipal designation, and the seeming lack of enthusiasm for a name change by the developer, Forest City. Many urged S.U.N. to take action to stop the glorification of white supremacy through continued use of the name.
Councilmember Chris Herndon, who lives in and represents Stapleton, responded to the issue from both personal experience and as an elected representative.
“When I moved here, I was a single black man,” said Herndon, who described his rise from block captain to elected city councilmember. “So, the idea that this is KKKpleton … you can’t be more off base, in my personal opinion. I’m not bothered by the name Stapleton.”
Herndon urged understanding of the whole story, pointing out that Mayor Stapleton later renounced his KKK membership.
He also believes the community has the opportunity to reclaim the meaning of the name: “As you learn about the history of Stapleton, what has this community become?” asked Herndon. “Right now you have people transitioning from homelessness, right next to million-dollar homes. You have a huge LGBTQ community. How would the KKK feel about that? And that is welcomed, embraced and loved. We have taken a name that has a terrible history and look what it has become.”
As a councilmember, Herndon says he receives very little correspondence on the issue of the name, particularly compared to the volume he receives on crime and traffic. The conversations he’s had with people don’t coincide with what activists have characterized as “this overwhelming desire to change the name,” he said.
Lakota-Sioux activist Molly Ryan-Kills Enemy shared her experiences, including the pain she feels when she sees her own heritage dishonored across Denver. In response, Park Hill resident Vincent Bowen, who opposes the name, emphasized the importance of learning about the past as a way to empower people. Bowen suggested that the Stapleton community could lead the way in changing how people remember and honor historical figures. “Perhaps it’s a name change; perhaps it’s not,” he said.
For example, in a recent interview with Ryan Warner on Colorado Matters, Colorado State Historian Patty Limerick addressed the issue, saying “In order to get elected, [Stapleton] took up with the Klan. In later phases of his life he regretted that and spoke differently about the Klan. What an opportunity for all of us to consider that example.” Limerick suggested instituting a Stapleton Reflection Day, where the community comes together to discuss the “cautionary tale” of Mayor Stapleton and his “deal with the Devil.” “How do we draw upon his experience to make our choices wiser?” asked Limerick.
Many meeting attendees supported further discussion about the name change.
According to a survey conducted by S.U.N. this spring, however, the majority of Stapleton residents (54 percent) are not interested in participating in further discussion about the name, with 16 percent wanting to participate in further discussion, while the remainder are unsure or have no opinion. Of survey respondents, 51.7 percent are completely or somewhat comfortable with the name, with 9.6 percent completely uncomfortable. Allshouse noted that those percentages were similar when looking by race.
Some in the audience criticized the survey for being poorly publicized, although, according to Allshouse, it was sent out through direct email to all MCA members, posted on social media, and notice published in the Front Porch. There are approximately 7,000 households in Stapleton, and 1,005 people responded to the survey.
Activists plan to circulate petitions for a name change and are discussing engaging national media in their efforts. The issue is likely to arise again at the September 19 S.U.N. meeting.