A couple of days ago, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt star Ellie Kemper got a hard shove into Twitter’s ‘Trending’ sidebar, all because The Internet discovered the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s online archives. Kemper’s social media mentions got really complicated after a Twitter user referred to Missouri’s Veiled Prophet Organization (VPO) as “our local KKK” before sharing a screenshot of a 1999 Post-Dispatch article naming a then-19-year-old Kemper as that year’s Veiled Prophet Queen of Love and Beauty.
As the info about Kemper’s past—which, again, isn’t exactly a secret—made its way from one side of the internet to the other, Twitter started convincing itself that Kemper was basically David Duke with better comic timing. That’s not to say that the Veiled Prophet Organization doesn’t have some undeniably awful aspects to its history. (Unfortunately, the same thing can be said for a number of colleges, social clubs, and U.S. presidents that originated in the back half of the 19th century.)
In the past 140 years, the organization has attempted to distance itself from some of its heaviest baggage, but it’s kept its well-manicured hands tightly wrapped around some of its traditions, like the annual Veiled Prophet Ball, the invite-only gala that presents the Queen of Love and Beauty and her court to the highest of St. Louis high society.
The ball itself is an absolute spectacle. “The Keeper of the Jewels, accompanied by costumed trumpeters, gestures to the orchestra to be quiet, then heralds the next girl from a scroll, proclaiming that ‘his mysterious majesty, the Veiled Prophet’ summons them to his Court of Love and Beauty,” St. Louis magazine wrote of the event in 2016. “When each special maid approaches the Prophet, she bows in a deep curtsy, then kneels as he places a feathered crown on her head. Last comes the Queen of Love and Beauty, ‘the fairest maid of his beloved city,’ who’s given the place of honor on the plush throne next to the VP.”
The Queen is always from the kind of family whose name is on a number of public buildings. After Kemper’s crowning—and let’s not forget, the Kempers have ‘Name an Art Museum After Me’ levels of money—some of the other recent Queens have included Cecilia Ann Fox, whose grandfather founded a private equity firm and served as the U.S. Ambassador to Belgium; Lily Shelton Baur, whose granddad owned the St. Louis Cardinals; and Margaret Francis Schnuck, whose family started the supermarket chain that still bears their last name.
A spokesperson for the Veiled Prophet Organization told the St. Louis Beacon that the present-day VPO is really “just an organization of businessmen” who love to enthusiastically promote the city (and presumably the continued power structures that allowed them to ascend to those positions in the first place.) “I don't know any organization, any philanthropic or fraternal or private club [...] the Kiwanis, the Masons, who want to go back and revisit their history," he said.
That history was, for a lot of years, a textbook example of both race and class discrimination. The Mysterious Order of the Veiled Prophet was founded in 1878 by Charles and Alonzo Slayback, a pair of former Confederate soldiers-turned-businessmen who reached out to a dozen prominent St. Louisan men and asked them to join their new club.
“[Charles’] intention was to form a secret society that would blend the pomp and ritual of a New Orleans Mardi Gras with the symbolism used by the Irish poet Thomas Moore,” Scott Beauchamp wrote for The Atlantic. “From Moore’s poetry, Slayback and the St. Louis elite created the myth of the Veiled Prophet of Khorassan, a mystic traveller who inexplicably decided to make St. Louis his base of operations.”
The Veiled Prophet himself would be chosen every year by the “local elites” and his identity would be hidden beneath a pointed hood—which was later scrapped in favor of a heavy lace veil. (Although the white hood looks familiar to the garment that is now associated with the Ku Klux Klan, historians have said that the latter group didn’t wear pointed hoods until several years after the Veiled Prophet’s first appearance. Thomas Spencer, the author of The St. Louis Veiled Prophet Celebration: Power on Parade 1877-1995 told the Los Angeles Times that, while researching his book, he “found no evidence” that the Veiled Prophets’ founders were associated with the Klan.)
It’s noteworthy that the Order of the Veiled Prophet was established a year after more than 100,000 railroad workers throughout the United States—and around 1,500 in St. Louis—went on strike to protest a pay cut and the all-around abominable working conditions they’d already been subjected to. “The primary goal of the VP events was to take back the public stage from populist demands for social and economic justice,” Beauchamp continued. “More than just a series of gaudy floats traversing the city streets, the parade and all its pomp was meant to reinforce the values of the elite on the working class of the city.”
That origin story gets a thick coat of varnish on St. Louis’ official website, where the VPO is named before the Gateway Arch and the Cardinals baseball team on a list of the city’s Cultural Institutions. “The traditional VP celebration has represented for St. Louisans a perceived link between different components of the community in a holiday celebration, while also reinforcing the notion of a benevolent cultural elite,” the city gushes.
That’s not all it’s represented to St. Louisans throughout the years. “I would make the argument that one of the roles that organization plays is to keep these people on top with business contacts," Spencer told the Riverfront Times. "What's so fascinating is they use those business contacts to put little Johnny into a corporate job, and by the 1950s and 1960s, all the corporate CEOs in St. Louis had the same names as the major business leaders did in the 1880s."
Despite the organization’s ability to slither through parts of three centuries, it has faced allegations of racism, for its exclusionary membership practices and for its members’—who, again, have always been among the city’s most prominent businessmen—allegedly discriminatory hiring practices.
In the late 1960s, civil rights activist Percy Green and his ACTION group protested Veiled Prophet events, chaining themselves to the floats during its annual parade, and picketing outside the yearly gala, while carrying signs that read “VEILED PROFIT$” and “VP=KKK.”
According to the St. Louis Beacon, Green also wrote to would-be debutantes, asking them if they would speak to him—and would speak out against their dads’ Veiled participation. He went to one deb’s home, and met with several women on the Queen’s Court who wanted to ask whether ACTION was a violent group. "What is it that you think that we have done that is violent?'' Green said he asked the women. "We stopped the parade. We handcuffed ourselves to floats. How does this compare to members of your families denying us jobs. Which action is most violent?”
In 1972, two ACTION members made it into the Veiled Prophet Ball, and one of them yanked the Prophet’s face covering right off. “The next day both the Post-Dispatch and the Globe-Democrat reported on the incident, though in keeping with tradition (the tradition being white hegemony), they refused to name the Prophet,” Walter Johnson wrote in The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States.
“Only the left-leaning St. Louis Journalism Review did that, and, for the record, it was Tom K. Smith, a vice president at Monsanto and former member of the board of Civic Progress.”
In 1979, the Veiled Prophet Organization admitted its first three Black members, Dr. William C. Banton II, Dr. Eugene Mitchell, and Dr. R. Jerome Williams, whose daughter also became the first Black maid of honor at that year’s gala. “I went along with it to pave the way for future generations," he told the Beacon. "But I paid lots of hell." (He left the organization a couple of years later.)
Several years after integrating its membership, the VPO formed a minority relations committee, and in 1995, they changed the name of their annual VP Parade to Fair St. Louis, perhaps in an attempt to distance the event from some of the reprehensible parts of its history. (The parade, which is held on or around July 4, now calls itself “America’s Birthday Parade.”) In 2003, it launched a Community Service Initiative to “improve the lives of all who call St. Louis home” by partnering with more than two dozen charities, including Beyond Housing, Food Outreach, and the Missouri Veterans Endeavor. Volunteer work is also apparently an essential component of being chosen as a debutante for the annual ball.
But that doesn’t mean that all has been forgiven—or forgotten. “One hundred forty years later, the [Veiled Prophet Organization] remains, and its success and survival is [...] the result of intersecting race, class, and gender-based ideologies that kept the image of power in St. Louis within a select cadre of men,” Kelsey Klotz wrote for The Common Reader.
But that all said, does that make Ellie Kemper a “KKK queen,” as someone on Twitter put it? No, of course not. The Veiled Prophet Organization hadn’t officially committed itself to community service in 1999, but by that point, it seemed to be just another exclusive thing for rich people to do—and 19-year-old Kemper wasn’t a member. Did her family benefit from economic and social privileges that were the result of several generations’ worth of racial inequality in the greater St. Louis area? Maybe, and that’s something for them to acknowledge and address. It’s also indicative of bigger, heavier societal problems that aren’t going to be solved by Twitter fights about a fancy party.
Update (6/8): On Monday, June 7, Kemper responded to the Veiled Prophet-related controversy, a week after the photos from the 1999 event reappeared on social media. “When I was 19 years old, I decided to participate in a debutante ball in my hometown,” Kemper wrote on Instagram. “The century-old organization that hosted the debutante ball had an unquestionably racist, sexist, and elitist past. I was not aware of this history at the time, but ignorance is no excuse. I was old enough to have educated myself before getting involved.”
“I unequivocally deplore, denounce, and reject white supremacy,” her statement continued. “At the same time, I acknowledge that because of my race and my privilege, I am the beneficiary of a system that has dispensed unequal justice and unequal rewards [...] I want to apologize to the people I’ve disappointed, and I promise that moving forward I will listen, continue to educate myself, and use my privilege in support of the better society I think we’re capable of becoming.”