Growing up in the 1960s in Denver’s Park Hill neighborhood, Tamara Rhone remembers overhearing her mother discussing nascent efforts to rename Stapleton airport, an ode to a former city mayor — and member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Thirty years later, she remembers talking to Landri Taylor, the former chairman of Denver’s Democratic Party, about that same name, which was about to be given to a new neighborhood on the airport’s old site. Why couldn’t they nip this in the bud before the first house was even occupied, she wondered.
The name stayed.
It’s been half a century since Rhone overheard her mother talking about the Stapleton name, a name that has prompted years of activism, neighborhood infighting, controversial votes and anguish among the city’s black population — but until now, no action.
“It’s taken a heck of a long time,” Rhone said. “If you haven’t grown up black in America, you can’t fully feel what that stuff feels like.”
Last Sunday, in the wake of landmark protests against systemic racism and police brutality in Denver and across the country, Stapleton’s neighborhood delegates announced they would support changing the name, setting in motion a series of votes and discussions about what the new name should be and how it should be decided. The Stapleton family says they support the change, as does Mayor Michael Hancock and the neighborhood’s developers. The historic announcement has elicited cheers and celebration, but also frustration and anger over the process.
Still, community members have noticed a shift in public opinion that has them hopeful for the future.
Who was Benjamin Stapleton?
While the neighborhood itself is less than two decades old, the history — and controversy — behind Stapleton goes back nearly a century.
Benjamin Stapleton was a lawyer, a veteran of the Spanish American War, and a United States postmaster general before he ran for mayor in 1923 with the KKK’s support.
The Klan was not just a hate-group in those times — it was an integral piece of Denver’s political machine, said Phil Goodstein, a Denver historian who wrote “In The Shadow of the Klan: When the KKK Ruled Denver.” And Stapleton was quick to get in their good graces.
He grew close with John Galen Locke, the founder and Grand Dragon of the Colorado Klan. When Stapleton had a son, he named Locke his godfather, Goodstein said.
In 1924, Stapleton stood atop South Table Mountain in Golden, where Locke warned the new mayor that he needed to heed the policies of the Klan.
“Stapleton says, ‘I will do whatever the Klan wants me to do,’” Goodstein said.
Stapleton ultimately served five terms as mayor during the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. In 1944, the city honored its former mayor by renaming Denver Municipal Airport to Stapleton Airfield.
How to change a neighborhood
There have been several unsuccessful pushes over the years to change the name. After the airport was decommissioned in 1995, a group known as the “Rename Stapleton Committee” fought to keep the name off any future developments. In 2015, Black Lives Matter 5280 helped reignite activism. Two years later, “Rename St*pleton for All” came along, leading to a community vote last August.
The vote failed 65% to 35%, though only one-third of residents voted and renters were not included.
But everything changed last month. Protests over the death of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police prompted outrage across the country, fueling not only days of marches but sustained energy from segments of America who never previously engaged with race.
Colorado lawmakers quickly passed one of the most sweeping police accountability bills in the nation. That same day, June 13, Denver Public School board member Tay Anderson, who has also spearheaded many of the city’s recent protests, tweeted that neighborhood delegates had one week to change the name or activists would march through their neighborhood.
On Sunday, the association said it intended to change the neighborhood name once and for all, and on Wednesday unanimously voted to recommend a name change to Stapleton’s registered neighborhood organization.
During Wednesday’s meeting, delegates detailed their personal, and sometimes emotional, transformations on the issue.
Josh Nicholas said he used cost reasons and a lack of a new name to justify voting against the change last year. But then he felt the tide shift, along with his own feelings.
“Just this week I was talking to a friend, and she said, ‘Josh, I love you, but I don’t feel comfortable bringing my daughter to Stapleton — it just doesn’t feel welcoming to me,’” Nicholas recounted during Wednesday’s delegate meeting. “And that broke my heart … for her and her daughter to not want to see their Uncle Josh because they don’t feel welcome where I live, that hurt.”
As a Mexican-American and member of the LGBTQ community, Nicholas said he’s felt hate in his own community.
“I thought, well, changing the name is not going help that,” he said. “But changing the name sends the message that’s it’s not OK, and it will never be OK.”
The Stapleton family has also expressed a change of heart. Walker Stapleton, the former state treasurer and Republican gubernatorial candidate, tweeted last week that if “changing a name brings more equity, fairness and opportunity for Denverites and specifically Coloradans of Color, I’m all IN.”
While the will to finally rename Stapleton is shared by every group and institution needed to sign off, there’s still plenty of red tape. The Stapleton United Neighbors is forming a committee to help whittle down a list of more than 80 options for names into a manageable list for the community to pick from.
Then, the community will get to decide on a new name either through a bracket-style competition — where names will be eliminated in a series of head-to-head votes — or through an advisory board, which would elicit community suggestions and come up with eight finalists to put for a community vote.
By Aug. 1, the committee plans to have a name selected to be presented for approval to the neighborhood developers, Brookfield Properties Development, which has indicated it supports the change. Denver would also have to approve of the name. The city has already begun removing references to Stapleton in their public GIS maps, city plans and codes, Mike Strott, spokesman for the mayor’s office, said in an email.
One of the most popular suggestions has been Westbrook, in honor of Dr. Joseph H.P. Westbrook, a black man who infiltrated KKK meetings in the 1920s to warn Denver’s black community about their plans. Other nominations include Justina Ford, the city’s first African American female doctor.
Black Lives Matter 5280 this week initially reacted to the news with jubilation. Organizers quickly put together a “ChangeTheName Victory Lap Car Rally” for Wednesday night, with plans to drive from Denver’s oldest black church, Shorter Community AME Church, into Stapleton to celebrate the win. The group encouraged participants to decorate their cars with suggestions for the new name.
But hours before the event, organizers canceled. Victory, it seemed, had not yet been achieved.
Amy Brown, co-founder of Black Lives Matter 5280, said the lack of transparency from the various neighborhood groups has been hurtful and the information delivered misleading. Black voices have been silenced, she said.
“We’re very clearly seeing the type of gatekeeping that can happen in these sorts of decision-making processes,” Brown said. “We’re watching in front of our very eyes, the system and systemic racism and the silencing of the black community.”
The neighborhood name change will happen, Brown believes, “but it will happen for the wrong reasons.”
“It will happen for embarrassment and PR,” she said. “In the midst of one of the most prolonged periods of community grief, the celebration aspects have been stripped from us.”
Timothy Tyler, pastor at the Shorter Community AME Church, said he didn’t know if the evolving sentiment surrounding Stapleton’s name is genuine, but he’ll take the change regardless.
“We’re happy it’s happening, but it’s not the end of systematic racism as we know it,” Tyler said. “It’s still a marathon, not a sprint.”
Neighborhood residents have also sensed a major shift in recent weeks. Facebook groups en masse suddenly pulled the “Stapleton” name off their page. Signs were covered, logos changed.
Ryan Haig moved to the neighborhood in November, mainly to be closer to the Pepsi Center to watch his beloved Denver Nuggets. He had no knowledge of Stapleton’s history until he saw signs on people’s lawns seeking to change the name.
The history hit the 24-year-old personally: His great-grandfather was a KKK member in Tennessee. When he found out that he’d moved to a neighborhood with that connection, Haig was eager to help get it changed.
“It makes me happy to live in a community open to change no matter how big or small it is,” he said.
Fighting to remove the neighborhood’s name almost led Brooke Lee to pack up and move.
“Once I became vocal about it, neighbors who had been very friendly would stop me in the middle of the street and give me a piece of their mind,” Lee said. “I got sworn at in front of my daughter. My daughter stopped getting invited to birthday parties she used to go to.”
But the landscape changed after Floyd’s death. Lee used to compile a photo album of all the people in the neighborhood who validated someone’s experience, who went out of their way to show they were an ally.
“I stopped keeping that album because it’s every day now,” she said. “I really believe there’s been a shift. You won’t hear ‘we’re done now’, but I’ve never been more hopeful for the culture of our neighborhood.”
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