It's time for GOP candidate Walker Stapleton – and Colorado – to reckon with painful KKK past
Members of the KKK hold a rally (Martin/Flickr )

Between 1923 and 1947, Benjamin Stapleton served five terms as Denver’s mayor. He gained and retained his office by winning financial and grassroots support from the Ku Klux Klan. Stapleton did its bidding for several years, appointing Klansmen to key cabinet positions.  Jews, immigrants, Catholics, and Blacks paid a painful price.

The New York Times recently reported that a clear majority (58%) of those now living in northeast Denver’s Stapleton community want to drop Stapleton from the name of their neighborhood association. But, as Mike Littwin points out, changing the name requires a 66% majority. Littwin thinks that Denver isn’t ready to address its KKK history. I disagree.

The Stapleton name has been divisive from the start. In 2001, a naming committee restricted the developer’s use of the name Stapleton. Still, it wasn’t until 2015 that Denver residents began to grapple with the city’s KKK history — which it shares with the entire state, whose KKK membership once reached 35,000. In 2017,  the city discovered that Stapleton Park in Globeville was never officially named, and removed the sign. The Stapleton Foundation and Citizens Advisory Board dropped the name. Forest City removed its Stapleton trademark from the 29thAvenue Town Center sign. And the Stapleton Development Corporation now calls itself SDC. Finally, as The New York Times noted, a majority of residents wants to change the name of the community association.

The Times doesn’t link Colorado’s KKK history with Republican gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton, Ben’s great-grandson. Littwin proposes that this is as it should be, because, as candidate Stapleton notes:

  • Ben died before he was born
  • We all have ancestors we could apologize for
  • “I am focusing on the future”

In my view, the Ben Stapleton connection has nothing and everything to do with Walker Stapleton.  Nothing, in that Walker did not and could not have personally supported the KKK: he was not even alive at the time. But everything, if he is indeed “focusing on the future.” To lead the people of Colorado into the future, Walker Stapleton should have the guts and the spine to help us face our white supremacist history —by being a model and doing so himself.

Stapleton is uniquely positioned to do just that. No one is better qualified to assess the damage his great-grandfather’s KKK allegiance caused, not just to his family name, but to the citizens of this state. Instead, Walker lumps his ancestor in with ours, as if we all have white supremacist lineages. Certainly, many of us may question or disapprove of our ancestors’ actions, but for a public figure whose family’s activities have affected the lives of so many Coloradans, Walker’s public hand-washing is simply disingenuous.

A friend of mine recently discovered that her Irish great-great-grandfather bought 70 acres in the Ohio River Valley a year after its indigenous Mingo inhabitants had been forcibly removed. She has the deed to prove it — signed by President Andrew Jackson. My friend visited the stolen land, let its history sink into her heart, and wrote it down for her family and future generations. She researched the Mingo people and their fate.

Absent that tainted real estate transaction, my friend’s life might have been very different. As it was, the value of that land helped her ancestor’s descendants survive the Depression. Ultimately, it allowed my friend to obtain graduate degrees and provide her own children with top-rate educational opportunities.  She questions her responsibility to the people who were harmed by her family history. Should she seek a way, even if only a token, to make amends?  Her German ancestors, furthermore, survived the winter of 1715 thanks to the kindness of Mohawk people in upstate New York.  She wonders how to acknowledge this gift today. These questions are not guilt trips. Nor are they abstract exercises. They are responsible actions, intended to complete a circle that will otherwise continue a downward spiral of unaccountability and the suffering it generates.

Walker Stapleton, for his part, prefers silence. Not coincidentally, a principal tool of white supremacy has historically been not to talk about itself or the damage it perpetuates.  As for Mr. Littwin’s sly reference to “the sins of the fathers and the great-grandfathers and all,” I suggest the gentleman exercise caution when invoking the Bible. Exodus 34:7 warns that “the iniquity of the father” will redound upon his descendants to the fourth generation —which, in this case, includes Walker Stapleton. I read this not as an unearned punishment of innocent offspring, but as an invitation to face and honestly do what we can to redress the moral transgressions of our forbearers. Simply acknowledging the harm done and pledging to use one’s power differently would be a wonderful start.

Walker Stapleton gives himself a pass on all this, but in November, voters need not do the same.

Jennifer Woodhull is a white South African who grew up in the apartheid era. She currently lives in Colorado Springs, where she is working on a late-life PhD and continuing a lifelong mission to repay her debt to oppressed people everywhere.

Jennifer Woodhull is a white South African who grew up in the apartheid era. She currently lives in Colorado Springs, where she is working on a late-life PhD and, she writes, “continuing a lifelong mission to repay her debt to oppressed people everywhere.”