Fans are demanding answers from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt star Ellie Kemper, who participated in a debutante ball founded by an organization that has a deep-rooted history of upholding white supremacy.
Seen beaming in recently unearthed newspaper clippings and photos, Kemper was crowned the 105th Queen of Love and Beauty at the 1999 Veiled Prophet Ball in St. Louis, Missouri. The then 19-year-old wore a long white gown and elbow-length white satin gloves, surrounded by men and children in ceremonial garb.
The St. Louis Post Dispatch fawned over Kemper’s high school academic, philanthropic, and athletic accomplishments, noting her attendance at Princeton University. It also listed her influential family members, pointing out that her father David Kemper was the chairman and chief executive at Commerce Bank and Commerce Bancshares, Inc.
Columnist Jerry Berger took it a step further, gushing that Kemper was “bred up to her pearls in the Prophet’s tradition of good manners, good works and good stock tips.”
He also noted that she was “paced through her royal court” by William H.T. “Bucky” Bush—the youngest brother of former president George H.W. Bush and the uncle of former president George W. Bush.
The year’s Veiled Prophet was August W. “Rusty” Hager III, the fair chairman in 1995 and the former president of his family’s 170-year-old door hardware business, Hager Companies. The Hagers are a prominent fixture of St. Louis high society, with their family’s company generating an estimated $250 million in revenue a year. Hagers’ own daughter Margaret “Molly” Hager won the Queen title of the ball in 1995.
Even though this news about Kemper has been out there before, both the pictures and newspaper articles led to Kemper being branded a “KKK Princess,” as many dug up the history of the event, which dates back to 1878 and was founded by former Confederate soldier Alonzo Slayback. Kemper did not return The Daily Beast’s request for comment.
The Veiled Prophet parade and ball was started in an effort to reaffirm the white upper class’ position of power over the disgruntled working class, according to a deep dive by The Atlantic in 2014. A year before the first parade, both white and Black railroad workers joined forces against the city’s elite and pulled off a major strike before police and federal troops shut them down.
The founders of the Veiled Prophet not only wanted to assert their dominance over the working class, but to pull off an envy-inducing event in the face of Chicago, its industrial rival. The hope was that a grand parade would continually bring visitors into town via railways, thus strengthening the city’s economy while lining the pockets of the rich.
The pompous displays of grandeur were presided over by the secretive Veiled Prophet, who was chosen yearly by the organization’s members, which consisted of wealthy white men. Only in recent years has the Veiled Prophet’s identity been revealed.
One Veiled Prophet’s identity was unmasked in 1972 by an activist, but the first was publicly announced by the organizers, bestowing the title to John G. Priest, who served as the city’s police commissioner and played a large role in shutting down the railroad workers’ strike—a clear sign that the rich controlled the law.
The Veiled Prophet ball was also viewed as a “rite of passage” for young debutantes, whose fathers were often members of the organization. The “belle of the ball,” which was later renamed to Queen of VP, was selected by the Veiled Prophet and given expensive gifts.
Apart from the founder’s ties to the Confederacy, parades held at night, Blacks barred from participating, and the secrecy of members, the Veiled Prophet Ball’s link to the KKK is rather tenuous, and comes from a depiction of the first Veiled Prophet, in which a man is seen holding a gun and wearing a tall white hood. It’s notably similar to the pointed hoods Klansman wear, a staple of the hate group since 1868.
The event was finally desegregated in 1979 and, due to the lingering negative historical connotations, organizers renamed it to the more “democratic sounding” Fair Saint Louis in the 1990s. In the years since, it’s further rebranded as more of a July 4th celebration, calling itself “America’s Birthday Parade.”
On its website, it notes that “many things have changed since 1878, but the Veiled Prophet Organization will always continue its largest gift to the community: a spectacular parade that has become one of St. Louis’ most enduring family traditions.”
But there have long been protests over the event, particularly during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Starting in 1965, the local group Action Committee to Improve Opportunities for Negroes (ACTION) began protesting all of its events.
“CEOs of these firms were showing how racist they were because they were associating themselves with a racist organization socially. Their mental and moral fiber is tied to this.”
Percy Green, one of the main organizers of ACTION, said the activists strategically targeted the Veiled Prophet parade and ball because “all of the CEOS of these industries were also members,” according to Thomas Morris Spencer in his book The St. Louis Veiled Prophet Celebration: Power on Parade. “CEOs of these firms were showing how racist they were because they were associating themselves with a racist organization socially,” Green is quoted. “Their mental and moral fiber is tied to this.”
In 1972, ACTION member Gena Scott infamously crashed the ball to unmask the Veiled Prophet as Tom K. Smith, the executive VP of agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology firm Monsanto.
After the death of unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown in 2014, many activists in Ferguson also targeted the event, with one member telling Rolling Stone that racism is “embedded in the infrastructures” of St. Louis and amplified by groups such as the Veiled Prophet.
When Kemper’s involvement with the organization was brought to public attention over the weekend on Twitter, many St. Louis locals claimed it was widely known as having a white supremacist history.
One described the organizers as “our local KKK,” and another said Mayor Vince Schoemehl, who served from 1981 to 1993, “closed the bridge from East St. Louis to prevent the predominantly Black residents there from coming to the VP Fair celebrations.”
A third said he could “remember Black people in St Louis talking about the VP being racist since I was in elementary school. Remember white progressives talking about the issue since I was a teenager.”
“Black People in St. Louis grow up screaming to the top of our lungs about the Veil Prophet Society,” another added. “Ever so often someone from out of town writes about it. Ellie Kemper ain’t nothing new. Every white elite family in the state of Missouri participates in this organization.”