Actress Ellie Kemper has apologized for her 1999 participation in a St. Louis, Missouri ball that has a deep-rooted history of racism, saying she “unequivocally deplores, denounces, and rejects white supremacy.”
The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt star finally spoke out on Monday, more than a week after the controversy—sparked by unearthed newspaper clippings and photos of her at the Veiled Prophet Ball—erupted on social media.
Then a 19-year-old Princeton University student from a prominent St. Louis family, Kemper was crowned the 105th Queen of Love and Beauty at the society event and was escorted by the youngest brother of former President George H.W. Bush.
“The century-old organization that hosted the debutante ball had an unquestionably racist, sexist and elitist past,” Kemper wrote in an Instagram post on Monday.
“I was not aware of the history at the time, but ignorance is not an excuse. I was old enough to have educated myself before getting involved. 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.”
As the firestorm over the ball spread, with Kemper being branded a “KKK Princess” in some posts, the actress initially remained silent.
“There is a very natural temptation when you become the subject of internet criticism to tell yourself that your detractors are getting it all wrong,” she said.
“But at some point last week, I realized that a lot of the forces behind the criticism are forces that I’ve spent my life supporting and agreeing with. If my experience is an indication that organizations and institutions with pasts that fall short of these beliefs should be held to account, then I have to see this experience in a positive light.”
The Veiled Prophet Ball was founded in 1878 by former Confederate soldier Alonzo Slayback, according to The Atlantic. Parades were initially held at night, members of the organization were clouded in secrecy, and Blacks were banned from joining the festivities. While many accused Kemper of being associated with the KKK for participating in the ball, its slight link to the white supremacist group comes from a depiction of the first Veiled Prophet, who wears a tall white hood.
St. Louis has worked hard to shed the Veiled Prophet’s racist history, desegregating the event in 1979 and renaming it Fair Saint Louis in the 1990s. It has also been rebranded as more of a July 4 celebration, also known as “America’s Birthday Parade.”