What It Means That Ellie Kemper Was Queen of the “Racist” Veiled Prophet BallBreaking News
tags: racism, Missouri, debutante balls, Saint Louis
A two-decade-old article about Ellie Kemper—the actress best known for The Office and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt—went viral this week, and for those of us not deeply immersed in the history of Kemper’s native town of St. Louis, Missouri, the story could seem both deeply weird and more than a little confusing. In 1999, it turns out, the then-19-year-old Princeton sophomore was dubbed the Queen of Love and Beauty at the Veiled Prophet Ball. The rediscovery of this fact then led to allegations that Kemper was a “KKK princess.” So … was she? And what is the Veiled Prophet Ball, anyway? And why is it suddenly trending now? Below, let’s break it all down.
What the heck is “the Veiled Prophet Ball”?
It’s an annual debutante ball in St. Louis with some very strange traditions and a history that’s spotty at best. As at most debutante balls, young women are invited to show off to and be honored by their community. Unlike at most debutante balls, the winner is decided by a hosting organization sometimes called the Mystic Order of the Veiled Prophet of the Enchanted Realm (seriously). The group, which has since rebranded as the Veiled Prophet Organization, was started by St. Louis “community leaders” who sought to bring more parties to the locals. These included pageants like the ball, which first began crowning its teenage queens in 1878. The ball is presided over by the titular Veiled Prophet, whose face and identity are concealed.
These guys sound like supervillains. Is this a KKK thing, like some people are saying?
It’s not a KKK thing, but as with so much in America, that doesn’t mean the Veiled Prophet Organization doesn’t have its own racist history. The order was an exclusive—and exclusionary—bunch that nonetheless found fans in St. Louis for its fancy parties. According to St. Louis’ Cultural Resources Office, the Mystic Order of the Veiled Prophet was a secretive society specifically created by “white male community leaders,” who then created the gala with the goal of “reinforcing the notion of the benevolent elite.” In the 1970s, they faced protests from civil rights groups like ACTION, which managed to infiltrate the ball in 1972 and unmask that year’s “veiled prophet,” who turned out to be a vice president of Monsanto. The society didn’t admit any Black members until 1979, more than 100 years after it was founded.
Why are people connecting the Veiled Prophet Organization with the KKK?
It seems to be a combination of the group’s actual racist history, its status as a secretive society, and the fact that members have been depicted as, well, wearing white sheets and pointy hats. That last image comes specifically from an illustration that was printed in the Oct. 6, 1878, issue of the Missouri Republican and is reprinted at the top of this article. Still, it’s not quite what it looks like. In 1878, white robes and pointy hats didn’t mean the same thing that they mean in America today; the KKK didn’t actually dress like that until the early 20th century. The Klan and the Veiled Prophet Organization are also not the only groups to wear white pointy hats. In Spain, for example, decidedly not racist celebrations of Holy Week often involve strikingly similar conical caps that read quite differently to Americans.
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