Ellie Kemper apologized for participating in the 1999 Veiled Prophet Ball in her hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, saying she was not aware of the organization's "unquestionably racist, sexist, and elitist " history at the time.
A week after images resurfaced of a 19-year-old Kemper being crowned the Queen of Love and Beauty at the debutante ball that had historically excluded Black and Jewish people, the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt actor addressed the controversy in an Instagram post on Monday.
"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," Kemper said.
Civil rights activists during the 1960s and 1970s famously picketed and protested the ball and parade organized by the Veiled Prophet — a group consisting of wealthy white elites cofounded in 1878 by a former Confederate officer. The group excluded Black and Jewish people until 1979.
Kemper, who hails from a wealthy and prominent family in St. Louis, was a Princeton student at the time and acknowledged that she should have known about the organization's history.
"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," Kemper said in her post. "I was old enough to have educated myself before getting involved."
After the online controversy, many people felt Kemper should not have to answer for a 20-year-old event put on by an organization that says it has moved on from its racist past. However, others believed she should address her involvement in an organization that continued to uphold the status quo.
Jane Sauer, an 83-year-old artist and activist, who along with another white woman went to jail after dramatically infiltrating the Veiled Prophet Ball in 1972 as a form of protest, was one of the people who said she wanted to hear from Kemper.
On Monday, Sauer told BuzzFeed News she was impressed with Kemper's response.
"I think the most important thing we can do today is own our past and Ellie Kemper has done that," Sauer said.
In her post, Kemper said she denounced white supremacy, but acknowledged that "because of my race and my privilege, I am the beneficiary of a system that has dispensed unequal justice and unequal rewards."
During the 1960s and ’70s, Sauer was part of the Action Council to Improve Opportunities for Negroes (ACTION), a civil rights group that fought against the Veiled Prophet organization's discriminatory and elitist practices that had economic repercussions on the city.
ACTION began picketing the ball and parade after activists realized the Veiled Prophet was run by the heads of major banks and corporations who refused to hire Black men, Sauer told BuzzFeed News last week.
In her post, Kemper said she had been tempted to believe that the criticism against her was wrong. But she added that she now sees her experience in a positive light because it will lead to organizations like the Veiled Prophet being held accountable.