Last year ushered in a renewed interest in re-evaluating Colorado place names, prompting the rechristening of Stapleton as Central Park, a new name for the Eskimo lift in Winter Park — and now, potential changes for two Denver libraries.
In 2020, Denver Public Library launched a review of all of its library names, according to DPL communications and community engagement director Erika Martinez. Although such explorations often stem from constituent complaints, that wasn’t the case here: The library began questioning some DPL branch names on its own.
“Looking at our values — and one being ‘Challenging Inequity’ — it really got us thinking,” Martinez says. “We have a variety of branches named after people. Did those people live a life that we would be proud of? We took a look at a variety of branch names, and two of the branches rose to the top with some red flags.”
The Byers Branch Library, now a Denver landmark, opened in 1918 at 675 Santa Fe Drive; it was named for William Byers, who'd founded the Rocky Mountain News sixty years earlier. Also coming under scrutiny was the Ross-Barnum Branch Library, at 3550 West First Avenue, which gets half of its name from the so-called “Greatest Showman,” P.T. Barnum, who in 1878 bought the land where the library now sits for a subdivision. The Ross-Barnum Library opened in 1954.
But today, DPL sees a need for change. In his newspaper, Byers openly advocated for "a few months of active extermination" against Indigenous people, whom he referred to as the "red devils." Front-page stories applauded the Sand Creek Massacre, the November 29, 1864, assault led by Colonel John Chivington on a peaceful camp of Cheyenne and Arapaho in the southeast corner of the Colorado territory that killed at least 200 members of the tribes, including many chiefs.
Barnum has his own red flags. His circus has been widely criticized for exploiting people of color; his 1855 autobiography, The Life of P.T. Barnum, Written By Himself, details how, after he became convinced an enslaved Black woman named Joice Heth was 161 years old and had been George Washington's nurse, Barnum paid her slaveowner for the “right” to exhibit Heth in his circus.
“These things don’t sound like the library of today,” Martinez says.
The “Ross” in Ross-Barnum Library recognizes Frederick R. Ross, a former Denver library commissioner who left money to a trust fund that has financially contributed to the DPL. The library is not opposed to that part of the branch's name, nor the names of three other DPL locations that incorporate Ross's name.
The idea of re-evaluating library names was greenlit in October by the Denver Library Commission, which comprises eight members appointed by the mayor. Now, a reconsideration process overseen by DPL staff is under way.
For the Byers branch, that process will be relatively straightforward. DPL plans to create a community committee to assist with engagement efforts, which will allow people to discuss the current name and suggest potential alternatives. The call for committee members will go out in early February; the DPL is particularly interested in recruiting people from Native communities and others with diverse perspectives, Martinez says. The committee will ultimately be responsible for recommending a new name to the commission.
DPL staffers have already been having discussions about the Byers branch with key stakeholders, including representatives from the Denver American Indian Commission and the Denver Indian Center. “They really wanted us to look at this as an opportunity to educate people about the Sand Creek Massacre and to give the Native community a space to share what that meant to them,” Martinez says. “So as part of the process, we’re going to develop some programming.”
A decision on the Byers Branch Library could be made and implemented by this summer, she adds. By then, the library could even be open — all of Denver's libraries have been closed for in-person service during the pandemic — and a public celebration could take place.
Re-evaluating the Ross-Barnum name has been a little more complicated, since the neighborhood where the library is located is named for the showman. According to District 3 Councilwoman Jamie Torres, the city's Renaming/Reframing Committee has made recommendations that the city reconsider that name.
“We don’t want to make it confusing and have a separate process for us," Martinez explains. "We’re interested in being part of a holistic solution to rename the assets in the Barnum neighborhood.” Or the neighborhood could choose another option, such as keeping the Barnum name but having educational programs created by the DPL explain its context.
"I want for this neighborhood to determine, is it meaningful to change the name, or do we provide context so folks understand what the history is?" Torres says. "It's important for us to have an opportunity to discuss that. We really do want to make sure that the things we name speak to our values."
“People may think it’s just a name, but that name caused a lot of hurt and trauma among our community,” Martinez says. “So we want to do the right thing. We want to allow ourselves to be challenged and to challenge our customers, as well.”