DENVER — As a candidate for Colorado governor, Walker Stapleton has touted a distinguished biography: two terms as state treasurer, a business degree from Harvard and a long family history of public service.
But there is one aspect of his family’s past that Mr. Stapleton has largely avoided mentioning: His great-grandfather, Benjamin Stapleton, a five-time mayor of this city, was also a powerful member of the Ku Klux Klan, a bespectacled former judge who helped the group seize control of Colorado government in what is now considered one of the state’s darkest periods.
Three years after a massacre at a black church in Charleston spurred a wave of American institutions to reconsider memorials to the Confederacy, Colorado is having its own reckoning. Here, the debate is not about Civil War statues, but about whether to rebrand institutions that have come to bear the Stapleton name: a well-to-do neighborhood, several schools, many businesses.
And now Walker Stapleton, the candidate for governor, finds himself in the difficult position of attempting to lead voters into the future just as the state grapples with his family’s past.
The Colorado governor’s race has turned into a nationally watched contest that is largely viewed as a test of the political direction of one of the purplest states in the nation. Mr. Stapleton, a Republican with a commitment to the fossil fuel industry and a pledge to defund so-called sanctuary cities, has come to represent an older, more traditional West.
His opponent, Jared Polis, a Democratic congressman, is a multimillionaire who made his money in e-commerce and who is pushing single-payer health insurance. He would be the first gay and Jewish governor in the nation and has come to represent a new, more liberal West.
The question is which West voters want.
So far, Mr. Polis has not raised the Klan issue on the campaign trail. But the Stapleton legacy, already the subject of debate before the race, could become a source of tension as both candidates try to win over an increasingly diverse electorate.
Candidates are jockeying to replace Gov. John Hickenlooper, a moderate Democrat, and the race is expected to be tight: The state has one million registered Democrats, one million registered Republicans and 1.2 million unaffiliated voters.
In the streets of Denver, activists have launched an effort to strip the Stapleton neighborhood of its current name, arguing that it throws salt in racial wounds, while students at Stapleton Middle School have been debating Benjamin Stapleton’s legacy, studying his biography and calling on administrators to rename their school — taking to television and radio to discuss their demands.
Mr. Stapleton, the candidate for governor, once embraced his great-grandfather, making Benjamin’s Stapleton’s civic work a top reason to elect him treasurer.
“My great-grandfather served five terms as Denver’s mayor in the 1920s, in the 1930s, in the 1940s,” he said in a 2009 campaign ad, ticking off the elder Stapleton’s accomplishments — building the airport, reinvigorating the park system. “I’m really proud of my family’s public service.”
But as residents have become more aware of his family’s ties to the Klan, Mr. Stapleton has had to tread more carefully, mostly dropping mentions of his great-grandfather from his campaign.
“It’s 100 years ago, 30 years before I was born,” he said when the Colorado Independent raised the issue recently. “If everybody started trying to apologize or explain what happened with ancestors of theirs who died 30 years before they were born, people would be doing a lot of explaining.”
Mr. Stapleton declined to be interviewed for this article and issued a statement: “I am focusing on the future.”
Benjamin Stapleton was only one of the first in a wave of elected officials to help the Klan seize control of the state in the 1920s.
The group’s first recruiter arrived from Georgia in 1921. By 1924, the Klan had won control of the mayor’s office, the city police, the governor’s seat, both United States Senate seats and much of the state legislature. Hooded men marched through town; opponents were kidnapped and pistol-whipped.
Much of this took place amid anxiety over crime and ascendant minorities.
The Klan fell, but Mayor Stapleton survived, and he went on to help lay the foundation for modern Denver. His son Benjamin Jr. served on the city water board and at the YMCA; his grandson Craig became a U.S. ambassador.
Soon, the area around the old Stapleton Airport, which is no longer in use, became Stapleton neighborhood, an urban idyll with wide leafy streets and row upon row of American flags.
Then, in 2015, in the wake of anger in Ferguson, Mo., and the shooting in Charleston, local Black Lives Matter activists began to shake Benjamin Stapleton’s Klan story loose, tossing up an enormous #ChangeTheNameStapleton banner and scattering “DID YOU KNOW?” fliers around the Stapleton neighborhood.
Vince Bowen, 54, an outdoor apparel entrepreneur and one of the activists, explained that many in Denver seemed to be unaware of race and class disparities, and he felt an urgency to point out their existence.
Mr. Bowen, a Polis supporter, called on Mr. Stapleton to discuss uncomfortable aspects of his family’s past. “If we don’t confront it, we will continue to repeat the destructive and quite frankly un-American practices of the past.”
Suman Kumath, 38, a Democrat, agreed. “I don’t think he owes anyone any explanation for what his great-grandfather did,” she said.
Last school year, a writing teacher at Denver School of Science and Technology Stapleton decided that her students needed to explore the issue. P.J. Shields, 42, convinced her colleagues at the school, part of a top-ranked charter network where the student body is heavily minority, that everyone should study the man whose name dotted the community.
Students learned about the Klan, debated whether the Stapleton name had taken on a more positive or negative meaning in recent years, then wrote persuasive essays for or against a change.
The goal, said Ms. Shields, was not to push students toward a preferred answer, but to help them understand language, debate it and listen to the arguments of others.
Brooklyn Luckett, 12, who is black, said she was so alarmed by the news that her school was named for a Klan member that she spent her first day of the lesson in the counselor’s office.
She emerged as one of the fiercest advocates for a name change, meeting with administrators and telling them the school shouldn’t be “admiring a man who didn’t do what was right.”
In the end, a schoolwide survey found that 58 percent of respondents believed their institution “probably” or “definitely” needed a change, and officials said they would consider the issue in the coming school year.
Ms. Limerick, the historian, said her view is that Mr. Stapleton does not have a responsibility to speak about his family’s past on the campaign trail.
“I have never thought that the sins of the father should be visited on the children, and I certainly don’t think they should be visited on the great-grandchildren.”
But governors can — if they choose — take on history. Mr. Hickenlooper became the first to issue an apology for the Sand Creek Massacre, an attack on hundreds of Cheyenne and Arapahoe people in 1864.
Should Mr. Stapleton decide to approach the Klan’s role in Colorado, Ms. Limerick said, she knows a state historian “eager and willing” to help.