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Why now? The roots (and possible future) of Colorado’s reckoning with racism past and present

Everything, it seems, is on the table as Colorado, in the throes of a pandemic, confronts racist history people of color battled for generations

Demonstrators clash with police at the Colorado Capitol on Saturday, May 30, 2020 for a third day of protests in Denver in response to George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minnesota. (Joe Mahoney, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Earlier this month, Sarah Stabio was cleaning up in the exercise studio she opened nearly four years ago when she caught a glimpse of the screen-printed sign on her front window: “The Bar Method Denver-Stapleton.”

Suddenly, she couldn’t wait another moment.

“Stapleton,” the area that memorializes a Denver mayor notorious for his ties to the Ku Klux Klan, had to be erased. And Stabio resolved to wipe it from her window in solidarity with an effort by the city’s Black community and its allies dating back decades. So she and her 12-year-old son, Oliver, immediately set about peeling the offending portion of her business name off the window. 

The adhesive proved more troublesome than she anticipated. Letters stuck stubbornly to the glass surface, underscoring the difficulty of erasing a name long associated with the city’s Stapleton Airport and then attached to the sprawling collection of east Denver neighborhoods. 

“But we kept going,” Stabio says, “and when I felt it finally was not recognizable as a word — which I try not to say or type anymore — that was a good stopping point. It doesn’t look pretty, but that doesn’t bother me at all. I’m just so glad to see the name gone.”

A dizzying succession of events over the past several weeks has infused a new urgency to Colorado racial and social justice issues through a wave of protest built on the work of Black and other minority activists who have hammered away at inequity for generations. Now, at a time when many of the usual diversions of everyday life have been removed by the coronavirus pandemic, race has received laser focus — not only from people of color, but white people as well. 

Mostly peaceful protests across the state from May into June, repeated for days on end, decried the slow killing of an unarmed George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop — and police violence in general. Whirlwind legislation on police oversight, at the local and national level, became reality. The search for justice for the family of 23-year-old Elijah McClain, whose death last year followed his violent arrest by Aurora police, finally gained both local and national traction.

Sarah Stabio, the owner and instructor at The Bar Method located in The Shops at Northfield Stapleton, scraped off the portion of her sign that said “Stapleton” on the glass of her studio. She will have a new sign designed and installed that substitutes the word “Northfield.” The community named for former Denver Mayor Benjamin Stapleton, who was also a member of the Ku Klux Klan, will change its name after years of protest. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

And surrounding all the recent flashpoints has been the lingering pain from historically ingrained racism, reflecting several states’ reckoning with the unspoken messaging of Confederate monuments. The same concern permeates discussion of many Colorado landmarks, locations and symbols. 

The Stapleton controversy jolted Stabio, and many others in the area, to action. The take-down and defacing of a statue of a Union soldier at the Capitol underscored its ties to the infamous Sand Creek massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho people. The toppling of a sculpture honoring Columbus in Civic Center park revived the long-running controversy over the explorer’s legacy. 

The city “proactively” took down a statue of Kit Carson when it seemed protesters were intent on doing it themselves. Even Denver South High School’s nickname, the Rebels, prompted further discussion. 

Everything, it seems, is on the table as Coloradans — and the entire country — confront an inflection point in the discussion of race that seems uniquely positioned to produce results, owing in part to the activism of young protesters but also to the state’s complex history.

Tay Anderson, the young Denver Public Schools director whose profile has risen dramatically amid the protests, wasn’t around for the 1960s — neither was his mother, he notes — but he senses that the current revolt carries some of the same characteristics of that earlier period of upheaval and civil rights activism.

“When you look at and read history, you see the things Martin Luther King was marching over are the same things we’re marching over right now,” says the 21-year-old Anderson. “Now we have a new wave of young people really trying to push this movement forward. America was not founded on a peaceful sit-in. Slavery was not ended because of a march. The civil rights movement was not always nonviolent. We have to be able to look at those three pieces of our history that changed the course of our nation and understand how those riots, wars and battles shaped who we are today.”

Anderson already won one of those skirmishes when the school board voted unanimously to remove police from Denver’s schools in the wake of studies showing students of color more often face discipline than white students. He joined the fight to rename Stapleton, vowing to bring protesters to the neighborhood if action wasn’t forthcoming. He was a presence in the days-long protests against police brutality and has weighed in on controversial sculptures and statues in the city.

An avowed Democrat, he also has called for the resignation of Democratic Adams County District Attorney Dave Young, who did not file charges against the Aurora cops who restrained McClain before his death.

The test of this moment is whether it can endure.

“I don’t want us to be talking in August about, ‘Oh, you remember all those protests?’” he says. “If we’re not seeing the change we want … we need to continue to show up. We’re no longer going to protest and then go back to being comfortable. Being Black in America is uncomfortable. I need people, white allies included, to get uncomfortable with us.”

Denver Public Schools board member Tay Anderson, left, and activist Elisabeth Epps and address a large crowd of demonstrators outside of East High School in Denver during a Black Lives Matter march on June 7, 2020. (Kevin Mohatt, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A transformative period?

Glenn Morris, a longtime leader in the American Indian Movement of Colorado and a professor of political science at the University of Colorado Denver, has spent 40 years trying to spark the kind of change that has happened in just a few short months. 

Suddenly, the Columbus Day holiday so long the object of annual protest has been removed from the official calendar in Colorado. Even the sculpture in Civic Center park honoring the explorer, a constant irritation to Morris, has fallen. And the statue of Kit Carson, whom Morris calls “as bad and as evil as any Confederate general to Black people,” was moved from its prominent display at Colfax Avenue and Broadway.

All that has Morris, too, wondering if this is a particularly charged moment in time.

“The question of whether this can be a transformative period — I hope it’s not just a moment — is whether there’s a sufficient number of people of goodwill,” he says, “who want to have a frank and open and substantive discussion of what domination and privilege has meant, and continues to mean.”

Why are more people willing to have that discussion now? Morris suspects that many are genuinely concerned that the political pendulum has swung too far from justice. He also says people may have the time, amid social restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, to more deeply consider what they want their country to be.

“I hope that’s one of the lessons, the ability for people to be more reflective by being quarantined, thinking about their mortality and mortality of those around them,” he says. “Because you remember Ferguson, the vilification of the Black Lives Matter movement, even by liberals? Now, everybody is stopping and unpacking this, asking ‘What’s really being said here?’”

Stabio, the fitness studio owner, admits that her outlook changed with regard to her neighborhood’s name. Just a year into the venture she opened in 2016, as she learned more about the controversy surrounding the former mayor, she realized that she wanted to remove his name from her business, even if that set back the slow process of establishing her brand and location.

If it even affects one person, it’s something small I can do, she thought. But the more she considered it, the more daunting the idea of the name change became. What about the costs? Would a change put her at a disadvantage with competitors? 

The process seemed overwhelming. So it didn’t happen. 

“Fast forward a couple years,” she says, “and it just felt like it had to happen.” 

It’s not that the old excuses went away. In fact, the coronavirus heaped new ones on top of those as Stabio operated on a reduced schedule with social distancing, and fought hard to attract and retain customers. But now, she observes, the name change is just one of several challenges at a unique time in history. And oddly, its burden feels lighter than it did earlier.

The torrent of recent events gave Stabio such a sense of helplessness that suddenly a name change felt like a simple act of control in a world spiraling into chaos.

“I can’t fully explain it,” she says. “I wish I would’ve done this sooner. But I didn’t, and I’m regretful of that. But I’m committed to doing what I can do now. I know it’s a small change and might not mean much, but all the small changes could add up to something bigger. It all signifies the recognition that we need to look at things deeper and be more inclusive.”

Many businesses in the Stapleton neighborhood have signs with the Stapleton designation in their company name. Some may change once a new name for the neighborhood has been selected. The community that bears the name of former Denver Mayor Benjamin Stapleton, who was also a member of the Ku Klux Klan, will change after years of protest and reflection in the community. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A war, a battle…and a film

When Fort Sumter, South Carolina, fell to the South in the first battle of the Civil War, Wallingford & Murphy’s general store in downtown Denver, situated about where 16th and Larimer streets intersect today, proudly raised the Confederate flag. An angry crowd gathered and demanded that it be taken down, but Southern sympathizers refused.

Finally, a Unionist braved the mob, climbed to the top of the building and brought down the banner. 

Public sentiment in Colorado, organized as a U.S. territory in late February 1861, less than two months before the Civil War began, was judged evenly split between the North and South at the start of the war, according to Robert Perkin’s “The First Hundred Years: An Informal History of Denver and the Rocky Mountain News.”

Those conflicting loyalties led to fights and occasional sporadic shooting in the streets of Denver. Eventually, Union sentiment prevailed.

Pro-Northern William Gilpin, appointed territorial governor by Abraham Lincoln, feared an attack from Confederate units with an eye on Colorado’s gold mines. A brigade of 3,700 men approached from Texas through New Mexico. So Gilpin dispatched a force of more than 1,000 troops to meet the threat.

In late March of 1862, they and pro-Union New Mexicans engaged the Texans at Gloriéta Pass, east of Santa Fe, where they defeated the Confederates in a conflict that ”determined the destiny of the entire West for the next three years,” Perkin writes.

At the end of the war, Colorado drafted a constitution and asked Congress to designate it a state. Notably, the document did not allow Black people to vote, so 137 Black Denverites petitioned Congress to refuse Colorado’s request. In 1876, six years after the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave Black males the right to vote, the Centennial State was born.

In 1915, eight years before Benjamin Stapleton would take over the Denver mayor’s office, Black activists in Colorado again rose up when the silent film “The Birth of a Nation” became a groundbreaking cinematic accomplishment — and the focus of considerable controversy as it opened across the country. 

The three-hour drama, often credited with giving birth to the Hollywood film industry, ultimately came to be recognized as racist propaganda. But in the moment, it enjoyed wide acceptance by white audiences as a historically grounded account of post-Civil War America and the heroic rise of the Ku Klux Klan to save the South from Black rule during Reconstruction. In fact, the Klan eventually would use the film as a recruiting tool to revitalize its membership.

Hooded Klansmen catch former plantation hand Gus, portrayed in blackface by white actor Walter Long, in a scene from “The Birth of a Nation.” (Creative Commons license)

Modupe Labode, Colorado’s chief historian from 2002-07, studied the ramifications of the film and its impact on state politics that led up to the Klan’s dominance in the early- to mid-1920s. She points out that local protest mirrored actions in several cities across the country.

Denver’s Black community had seen the violent manifestations of the Klan in the South and sought to stand up to those and the institutional segregation that already was happening at the federal level, through housing discrimination and a ban on interracial marriage. But they also were concerned that Republicans, who viewed Black people as a loyal constituency, “would cut loose their engagement with Black communities if they could get away with it,” Labode told The Colorado Sun.

“The Birth of a Nation” provided a strong cultural hint that public attitudes could take a disturbing turn. Black people already had been monitoring a theater show derived from author Thomas Dixon’s book, “The Clansman,” which also was the basis for the blockbuster film.  

It wasn’t just entertainment, but something that white people were supposed to go to to learn something about their past. Many African Americans, and the NAACP, saw it as calumny. It was an outrage, it was libelous.

Modupe Labode, former Colorado state historian, on the film “The Birth of a Nation”

“The film was important in a lot of ways,” Labode says. “(Director) D.W. Griffith marketed it as a history lesson. It wasn’t just entertainment, but something that white people were supposed to go to to learn something about their past. Many African Americans, and the NAACP, saw it as calumny. It was an outrage, it was libelous.

“Portrayal of history and interpretation of history has been a common element of African American protest. That was one of the things people really saw as upsetting.”

The film, which was the first to be screened in the White House, where President Woodrow Wilson and his cabinet looked on, is a dramatic tale of two families on opposite sides in the Civil War, and culminates with the Klan literally riding to the rescue of the victimized, postbellum South. Though acclaimed for its technical innovations, its story is filled with bigoted portrayals. 

One scene purported to show a Reconstruction-era legislature in which ignorant Black men ate chicken and threw bones on the ground. Another notable sequence depicted a Black man — who like many of the characters is a white actor in blackface — pursuing a young white woman to the edge of a cliff, where she leaped to her death rather than submit to his advances. 

“Interracial sexual relations and rape of white women was used as a popular pretext for lynching,” Labode says. “They were very upset that (the film) was white supremacist history, also that the Progressive-era city government had been accepting of racial segregation.” 

In Denver, the Black community lobbied local officials to either eliminate some particularly inflammatory scenes or ban screenings altogether. Ultimately, white authorities allowed the film to run, unedited, for several weeks. But Black activists learned from the experience, which in some ways hastened their drift from the Republican party.

“One of the reasons ‘Birth of a Nation’ was such a big deal nationally among African American communities was that people could directly see the threat,” Labode says. “They understood the power of film, and technically accomplished film. It’s why activists take pop culture very, very seriously. You can see how it could be mobilized against you.”

The case that sparked protest

The use of police force against people of color has been a long-festering issue, a painful road marked with the names of the dead: Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor, and on and on and on.

Intermittently, the issue of police violence might gain traction, but seldom long enough, or deep enough, to force meaningful change.

And then came George Floyd, a man whose death at the hands of a Minneapolis cop, who kneeled on his neck until he died, was captured on 8 minutes, 46 seconds of horrifying video.

Black Lives Matter protesters rallied in downtown Montrose on June 1, 2020, some carrying signs bearing the last words of George Floyd, the black man who died at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. Demonstrations have occurred in towns and cities across the U.S. protesting police brutality after Floyd’s death. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Protests sprang up across the nation, and even in small actions across Colorado, though the large demonstrations over more than a week in Denver attracted the most attention. To this backdrop, the state legislature, which remained in session only because the pandemic had postponed its regular schedule, put police accountability on the fast track and, with strong bipartisan support, passed a measure that promised concrete improvements in police procedures.

In short order, the Denver Public Schools board voted unanimously to end the contract that stationed police officers in schools. 

And suddenly, the names of Colorado victims of police violence, some dating back decades, gained new currency: Paul Childs, Frank Lobato, Michael Marshall, Jessica Hernandez, Marvin Booker, De’Von Bailey. 

And especially Elijah McClain, who had committed no crime but last year was stopped by Aurora police as he walked home from a convenience store, after a 911 call reported a man acting suspiciously. He was taken off life support three days after the encounter in which he was restrained with a since-banned chokehold, sedated and suffered cardiac arrest.

Details of McClain’s death, which so far has produced no charges against the officers involved, have raised enough questions that Gov. Jared Polis appointed the attorney general as special prosecutor to revisit the case. The incident also has attracted national attention as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, tweeted out her wish that McClain’s family might find justice. So did Bernice King, the youngest daughter of Martin Luther King Jr.

Meanwhile, protests persisted in Aurora, where last weekend police broke up a gathering of violinists who played at a vigil for McClain, a violinist himself. Mari Newman, the attorney who represents McClain’s family, attended the event and found the juxtaposition of peaceful musicians and cops in riot gear “mind-boggling.” Bystanders captured it on video.

Newman points out that the recent legislation that addresses police use of force grew in part from cases like McClain’s and others in which video evidence displays police behavior that much of the public once seemed reluctant to acknowledge. 

“It’s tragic that it’s taken so many lost lives to get to a point where people are ready to have meaningful discussion, to have true and lasting change,” Newman says. “I’m very hopeful this is a movement, not a moment. All of the things happening now are because of the groundwork made by civil rights warriors before us over many decades. 

“This is hardly something new.”

Tay Anderson, the Denver school board director, says none of the measures enacted in the wake of the national attention would have happened if not for the pandemic. That’s significant, he adds, because people no longer are satisfied with symbolic changes, “gestures of hope for a new future with no action.”

“COVID is the only reason we’re seeing this response,” he says. “Without it, no law would have been passed. It would have been another footnote, something to address in the next (legislative) session. But it shouldn’t take people dying to change the law.”

He wonders how police can walk white killers like James Holmes out of the Aurora movie theater after his deadly shooting spree, or peacefully arrest white supremacist Dylann Roof, who killed nine Black attendees of Bible study at a South Carolina church, and yet people like Elijah McClain, who committed no crime, are dead. 

“That was the great first step we needed, but it’s not enough,” Anderson says of the new laws. “That’s why I think they’ll be working on other things in the next legislative session, like no-knock warrants. This is just the beginning, phase one of a multi-phase solution.”

Amy Brown, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter 5280, agrees that reforms shouldn’t have cost the lives of so many people whose stories, cumulatively, provide the grim answer to the question of “Why now?” She describes “waves of conscience” that periodically lapped up on the organization’s Facebook page in the aftermath of such deaths over the years.

Then, finally, a light seemed to go on.

“How horrific is it that it took those 8 minutes and 46 seconds of brother George Floyd’s life being taken from him for an awakening of conscience in many white Americans?” she says. “How horrific is it that Brionna Taylor was in her bed when police came with a no-knock warrant? Is this what it takes for the conscience of those holding power to come to terms with the reality that these systems must be toppled?”

“I think there is a point of opportunity here,” she adds. “The movement surfacing now is because a movement has been in the works, people have been carrying the movement on their shoulders and backs for decades and generations. This is not something springing up, but reignited by the work of Black organizers doing this in and out for years, whether or not white America was paying attention.”

Back in 2015, her work focused on the Stapleton area — not an issue of tangible consequence like police accountability, but one that fought against the deeply ingrained attitudes.

She and others canvassed the area, leaving fliers that made the case for removing the name of a mayor who embraced the Klan in Denver. “We put education literally on their front door,” she recalls. The response was in many cases defensive, she recalls, and sometimes angry as what some residents felt was an aggressive attack on their neighborhood. 

“People were bothered by the idea that Black people would have the audacity to tell them something was wrong and needed to be changed,” she says. But while she also found some friendly ears, the effort didn’t get far. Black Lives Matter handed off the project to Rename St*pleton for All, an organization conceived by the late Greg Diggs and Genevieve Swift, and later headed by Liz Stalnaker.

Stalnaker moved to the area just as Black Lives Matter 5280 was finishing its work there, but felt moved by the information she learned about Ben Stapleton and was glad someone was seeking change. She went about her life until August 2017, when the clash between white nationalists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, led to the murder of Heather Heyer.

Stalnaker recalls that as a galvanizing moment, and remembers reading a letter put out by a neighborhood organization denouncing the violence, white supremacy and the Confederate monuments that celebrated it.

“A number of us saw the cognitive dissonance of denouncing monuments to white supremacy,” Stalnaker says, “without realizing that the name Stapleton itself is a Denver monument to white supremacy.”

And once again, the campaign had legs.

The Klan comes to Colorado

When the Ku Klux Klan permeated Denver’s city government in the first half of the 1920s, acts of violence and intimidation against Black people, whether overtly by the Klan or by institutionalized racism, left their mark.

Restrictive real estate covenants kept them west of Race Street, and when a Black fireman named Claude DePriest had the audacity to buy a place on Gaylord Street, two blocks east of that imaginary dividing line, an angry mob converged on his house and demanded he move.

A year later, a Black post office clerk rented a house in the 2100 block of Gilpin Street, a few blocks west of Race. A white stranger threatened to blow it up if he didn’t leave. He didn’t, and late one night an explosion on the front lawn left a crater and shattered the home’s windows.

He moved. When another Black man moved in, the property was bombed again.

Colorado’s involvement with the Klan fell into one of three iterations of the organization described by historians.

There was the post-Civil War era, when the South chafed against Reconstruction and the Klan rose to power as a violent response to the defeat of the Confederacy. Additionally, there was the period of the 1950s and ‘60 when its response to integration and the civil rights movement was defined by horrific and, thanks to a complicit judicial system, largely consequence-free murders.

In between, there was its re-emergence in the early 1900s, throughout the United States, as a somewhat less violent but no less intimidating political force. 

It was during that period in the 1920s, when Colorado came under Klan rule for about five years, that Denver Mayor Benjamin Stapleton launched a long political career in which he leveraged the support of the Klan to advance a law-and-order agenda and enforce a staunch Prohibitionist stance. 

Not that he did so overtly, at least at the start.

In this undated photo, Denver Mayor Benjamin Stapleton, in a dark suit at center, poses with a crowd of men and women, likely at his campaign headquarters in Denver. (Denver Public Library, Western History Photographic Collections)

When Stapleton became mayor in 1923, he disavowed the Klan, says Bob Goldberg, history professor at the University of Utah and author of “Hooded Empire: Ku Klux Klan in Colorado, 1921-32.” But Stapleton already was a member. Goldberg notes that “it was standard operating procedure to deny your hooded affiliations,” and that in 1924, he publicly came out as “a tool of the Ku Klux Klan.”

“Benjamin Stapleton bears responsibility for the Klan being in Denver,” Goldberg adds. “And he had Klansmen from the top to the bottom of his government.”

Stapleton had an accomplice in John Galen Locke, a New Yorker who arrived in Denver in 1893 and got a medical degree from the University of Denver, though the local medical society eventually refused to license him. But Locke saw the Klan as a means to power and soon became Grand Dragon, operating from an office where a suit of armor stood sentry outside.

“Locke is a friend of Ben Stapleton, an ambitious politician,” Goldberg says. “The hookup is obvious.”

Significantly, the two would later clash, and Stapleton would fire those Klan-member city leaders — including the police chief — loyal to Locke.

A typical Klan strategy was to quietly take the pulse of a community, determine the issues that bothered people and then sell the Klan through those issues. In Colorado, the Klan took root as the Denver Doers Club in 1921 and within four years became what The Denver Post called “the largest and the most efficiently organized political force in the state of Colorado today,” according to co-authors Stephen J. Leonard and Thomas J. Noel in “Denver: From Mining Camp to Metropolis.”

John Galen Locke, who served as Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in Denver. (Provided by History Colorado. Accession #86.296.2998)

Although Black people accounted for just a little over 2% of Denver’s population, they were well-educated and making economic progress — especially compared to larger urban areas. More than one-third owned their own homes, almost five times the number in New York.

Amid concerns about “un-Americanism,” the Colorado version of the Klan leveraged bigotry against not just Black people, but Jews and Catholics as well. A Jewish lawyer was kidnapped and beaten because he represented alleged bootleggers, and Klan marches down West Colfax Avenue were calculated to intimidate the Jewish neighborhood that had grown there.

Anti-Catholic sentiment sought to keep Catholic teachers out of public schools, and Klan legislators even sought, unsuccessfully, to have sacramental wine outlawed during Prohibition. Also a point of concern: rumors that the Pope was intent on building a summer residence in Fremont County. A Klan-hatched idea to blow up the Immaculate Conception Cathedral on East Colfax Avenue was abandoned only when Locke calculated that the Catholics would just take the insurance settlement and build an even larger edifice.

Aside from bigotry, the Klan played on more general concerns of the state’s white population. Amid Prohibition, many were concerned about bootleggers. Other crime, from burglaries and robberies to prostitution, threatened residents’ sense of both safety and morality.

“A variety of law-and-order issues was compounded by the fact police were seen as corrupt,” Goldberg says. “There was a payoff and tipoff system which kept the bootleggers and brothel madams in business. In Denver, the law and order issue was particularly prominent. Then there were the issues of Jews and Catholics and African Americans, who were also resisting the bond of segregation and prejudice.”

Although the Klan relied less on violence as it secured its grip on local government, burning crosses and Klan parades remained common means of intimidation.

This was the Klan that, under Mayor Stapleton, held sway over Denver, and much of Colorado, in the 1920s. Its influence would subside by 1925, when Locke ran afoul of the law (he threatened to castrate an East High School senior if he didn’t marry the young woman he got pregnant) and was removed as Grand Dragon. The Klan’s headquarters shifted to Cañon City under Exalted Cyclops — and Baptist minister — Fred G. Arnold. 

Goldberg has visited Denver multiple times to speak with Stapleton residents about the history of their area’s namesake. At one point, he was asked specifically whether Stapleton had ever attempted to make amends for his association with the Klan. He says that in his research from that period, he found nothing that suggested Benjamin Stapleton ever “regretted, refuted or was disappointed in his membership” in the Klan.

“Benjamin Stapleton unbalanced his moral compass and never rectified it,” Goldberg says. “He was not anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic or in favor of white supremacy, necessarily. I don’t believe those were his issues. But his own ambition became overweening, and came to overshadow his conscience.”

In this photo from 1924 or 1925, crosses burn during a Ku Klux Klan night ceremony held on South Table Mountain in Jefferson County. A row of men in white hoods that cover the face and robes encircles men in street clothes who kneel with their backs to the camera. Spectators sit in chairs outside the circle, some with white hoods. (Denver Public Library, Western History Photographic Collections)

Generations of pain

Modupe Labode, the former chief state historian, remembers the reaction that Benjamin Stapleton’s name would elicit in the Black community in the early 2000s.

“It was this bitter laugh,” she recalls. “They named the airport after him on one hand. But Colorado residents know this history, that he was associated with the Klan and presided over a city government in which the Klan had free rein. In the early 2000s, it was one of these constant issues that emerged. It isn’t forgotten, except for people with the privilege of forgetting it or minimizing it.”

JuJu Nkrumah didn’t forget.

“As for who this man was and what he did, our elders remember with so much pain,” says Nkrumah, 74, a longtime Denver resident. “I’ve watched tears drop as they told us about the hell they lived in this city. The curfews, can’t go here, can’t go there, where you could live, where you couldn’t.”

Nkrumah and a friend, Mary Martin, teamed up when Stapleton Airport was vacated to ensure that the name did not survive in the redevelopment. In the mid-1990s, they attended countless meetings with the developer, scheduled in the early morning hours, to make their case. But in the end they felt ignored.

“The bureaucracy had the power,” she says. “And we didn’t matter.”

Mary Martin didn’t forget.

She lived in North Park Hill and was a Democratic committeewoman when she got together with Nkrumah to push the idea of letting the airport’s name rest in the scrap heap with the rest of the demolition. But she, too, felt that no one was really listening.

“I got so frustrated that one time, you know how we have that marade for Martin Luther King Day?” she says. “One time I was in that, I marched from City Park to downtown with a sign that said, ‘Stapleton is Klan Land.’ And I meant it.”

Tamara Rhone didn’t forget.

“I was young when I learned who Stapleton was,” says the longtime teacher in Denver Public Schools. “I grew up in an African American environment, I knew this stuff. People say it’s only a name because they didn’t grow up Black in Denver, in America.”

She remembers hearing family stories passed down about her great-grandmother’s brother being lynched. “We never knew who did it,” she says, “but I remember in the ‘90s when she told the story, she told it like it happened the day before. They don’t know whether it was the Klan or not. She came back from town and he was swinging from a tree. An unsolved crime.”

Brooke Lee, who moved to Stapleton in 2015 and eventually joined the effort to change the community’s name, has started collecting a list of businesses that have decided to drop the Stapleton designation from their company names. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Brooke Lee and her husband, Yun Lee, moved to Stapleton in 2015 from Berkeley, California, and felt that they were moving into a well-planned community with lofty ideals. Then they learned about its namesake’s history. Coming from different Asian communities, they each had their own experience with prejudice. When Brooke Lee took up the name-change cause, she felt ostracized by some neighbors who disagreed. 

She heard a range of arguments that minimized Stapleton’s power as the name of a community. It represented an airport, not a person. It was so long ago, why change now? We need to keep the name to preserve history. If we change this, we’ll have to change everything. This is just political correctness — get over it.

By the time the issue came to a vote last summer, it had been cast as a pocketbook issue: rebranding would cost money, and that money would have to come from area residents. The vote, which took into account absentee property owners but not the renters who live there, ended up with 65% preferring to keep the name.

“That process was ridiculously flawed,” says Tom Downey, one of the Master Community Association (MCA) delegates who favored the name change all along.

Part of the problem was lack of an educational campaign to inform residents of the history, he adds, noting that when Stapleton was created, the name was supposed to be a placeholder until something different could be settled upon.

“But it got embedded,” Downey says. “There were a couple attempts to overturn it, but there wasn’t the political will.”

And so time passed on — until suddenly it didn’t.

“Then the world stopped,” says Stalnaker, referring to the pandemic shutdown.

Momentum that the group seemed to be making was lost — until George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis saturated the media and the video ignited an anger so much greater in scope than what had met other racially charged incidents. With the rest of life shut down by the coronavirus, there were fewer distractions and more intense focus on systemic racism. 

“More white folks and folks who otherwise haven’t had to confront racial injustice are being awakened to that reality,” Stalnaker says. “Not just about police brutality, but health inequities that communities of color are addressing with COVID-19. It was kind of like this confluence of things came together to make this specific moment.”

By early June, a posting in one of the many community chat groups suggested that now would be a good time to think about dropping “Stapleton” from their names. In just a few days, about 20 did just that, Stalnaker says.

Not only was there renewed energy in the community for a neighborhood name change, but delegates to the MCA also wanted to revisit the issue, though ultimately the decision rested with developer Brookfield Properties. DPS director Tay Anderson’s tweets about bringing protest to the area’s streets also lent an air of urgency to the process.

On a Zoom call, the MCA board expressed its support for changing the Stapleton name. That meant some delegates had changed their stance, and they explained themselves in some emotional accounts of their transition.

Delegate Josh Nicholas, who opposed the name change for cost and logistical reasons last year, offered one of those. He explained that a close friend from work, whose young daughter calls him Uncle Josh, recently told him they didn’t feel comfortable coming to visit him in his neighborhood. 

“It broke my heart,” he says. “When someone’s not comfortable coming to visit you because of where you live, that’s challenging. That really was a catalyst for me. 

“In 2019, I didn’t think changing the name would get us closer to social justice,” he adds. “But as I see it now, it’s one small step to getting closer. Any time you can take those steps closer to equality, it’s always the right thing to do.”

Brooke Lee felt moved after the video meeting.

“Honestly, it was a master class in humility,” she says. “One by one they gave their account of what happened to them, how they’ve come around now and made a mistake last year. And now they’re making a stand. There was a lot of personal growth and reflection that occurred.” 

And the ultimate result, which will be a yet-undetermined new name for the neighborhood, left her heartened.

“There’s so much evidence in the news to believe that you can’t be treated as equal if you’re not part of the dominant culture,” she says. “This is a powerful story that refutes that. This isn’t the end of the story. This is one rung, the first step in many steps. If we can’t do the small things, we’re not going to garner the courage for life-changing things.”

The lingering question is whether this moment — a time of intense introspection and examination of systemic racism — can maintain its momentum or whether it will dissipate when, or if, the pandemic eases and the everyday distractions dilute the hunger for change that surfaced in May.

“It may portend some positive things going forward,” says AIM’s Morris. “You know how many years I stared out at that Columbus statue, how many years I was at the legislature trying to repeal that holiday? And now we get the holiday repealed and statues gone in the same season? I’ve been at this for 40 years, and in a matter of five months I see all this transpire. 

“While it represents a sea change, it can’t represent an end point.” 


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