Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt actor Ellie Kemper came under fire over the Memorial Day weekend after photos resurfaced online of her participating as a beauty queen in an organization that had historically excluded Black and Jewish people.
Kemper was crowned the "Veiled Prophet Queen of Love and Beauty" at a 1999 ball in St. Louis organized by the Veiled Prophet organization, which has racist and elitist origins, according to civil rights activists who frequently picketed the event in the 1960s and '70s.
The then-19-year-old Kemper's association with the organization — a group consisting of wealthy white elites cofounded in 1878 by a former Confederate officer that excluded Black and Jewish people until 1979 — shocked many on Twitter and was a trending topic over two days.
While it was news to a lot of people online, Kemper's involvement in the debutante ball had already been cited on her Wikipedia page and written about before, including in these 2009 and 2010 profiles of Kemper by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and this 2020 blog post that noted the allegations of racism tied to the event.
A 1999 St. Louis Post-Dispatch file photo showed a smiling Kemper wearing a white gown and gloves and being attended by her "pages" after becoming the "105th young woman" to be crowned the Veiled Prophet Queen of Love and Beauty at the Adam's Mark hotel in St. Louis.
Kemper, who was attending Princeton University at the time, belongs to a wealthy and influential banking family from St. Louis. She told the Los Angeles Times in 2017 that she had a "very privileged, nice, warm childhood."
Kemper's representatives did not return a request for comment, and she has not yet responded to the furor on social media.
The most popular tweets about the revelation branded Kemper a "KKK princess," apparently in reference to the image of the first Veiled Prophet, armed with a shotgun and pistol, that drew comparisons to a Klansman.
However, as others noted on Twitter, despite its own racist origins, the Veiled Prophet organization did not have ties to the Ku Klux Klan and Kemper did not participate in a KKK beauty pageant.
Most St. Louis residents are aware of the Veiled Prophet's racist and exclusionary traditions, and the ball and parade have prompted protests and backlash over the years, according to a 2014 Atlantic article by Scott Beauchamp that was widely circulated on Tuesday.
In an attempt to distance itself from its problematic past, the Veiled Prophet parade changed its name to Fair Saint Louis in the early 1990s and is now a 4th of July party with fireworks, food, and concerts.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, the Veiled Prophet Organization said it was "dedicated to civil progress, economic contributions and charitable causes in St. Louis."
"Our organization believes in and promotes inclusion, diversity and equality for this region," the group said. "We absolutely reject racism and have never partnered or associated with any organization that harbors these beliefs."
Citing historian Thomas Spencer's account of the Veiled Prophet, Beauchamp wrote there was public backlash over the "upsetting racial stereotypes" depicted on the parade's floats in its earliest years. A 1934 St. Louis Post-Dispatch article about the parade noted that the crowd shot peas into the parade.
The Veiled Prophet was founded in 1878 by Charles Slayback, a grain merchant, along with his brother, Alonzo Slayback, a former Confederate officer. They envisioned it as a secret society imbued with grandeur and mysterious rituals to demonstrate and uphold the power of wealthy white elites in St. Louis in response to the massive labor strike that was quelled the year before.
"Feeling the heat from industrial competitors to the North and labor unrest inside the city, the business elite of St. Louis decided in 1878 to double down on the static racial and economic power structure of the city," Beauchamp wrote. "The Veiled Prophet Ball and Fair was a powerful symbol of that reassertion of control."
The prominent attendees of the ball have included Margaret Truman, President Harry Truman's daughter, along with his treasury secretary, John W. Snyder.
As part of its rituals, an anonymous and elaborately costumed Veiled Prophet would choose a Queen of Love and Beauty among the debutantes at the ball and dance with her before giving her an expensive tiara or pearls, according to Beauchamp.
One of St. Louis's most prominent civil rights activists, Percy Green II, frequently protested against the ball as a "racist, sexist, and elitist" organization through the 1960s and '70s with his now-disbanded group called ACTION (Action Council to Improve Opportunities for Negroes).
Green and ACTION targeted major companies in the area — many of whom were led by white men belonging to the Veiled Prophet organization — over their refusal to hire Black men, he said in a 2007 interview with PubDef.net.
Calling the Veiled Prophet a "racist" and "discriminatory" social organization, Green said he decided to picket the ball from 1965 onward and carry out "some form of civil disobedience" at the parade.
“If the city was going to truly integrate, they should not have a Ku Klux Klan–ish event. That’s why we attacked it," Green said in another interview.
In 1969, four members of ACTION were arrested after a group of about 30 demonstrators — led by Green — picketed the Veiled Prophet Ball, while he shouted "white racism must go, the Veiled Prophet must go," the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported at the time.
Among those arrested was a Black man dressed as the "Black Veiled Prophet" and his queen. Activists also attended a parody party called the Velvet Plastic Ball.
The protesters taunted the ball's attendees with shouts of "Back to Ladue, clowns, pigs" and carried signs such as "Let 'Em Eat Cake, Veiled Profit," and "Entertainment for Rich Paid for by Poor," the Post-Dispatch reported.
In one of ACTION's most memorable protests, in December 1972, two white women infiltrated the ball and managed to yank off the Veiled Prophet's veil, revealing him to be Tom K. Smith Jr., the then–vice president of Monsanto, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which refrained from printing his identity at the time.
The two white ACTION members, Gena Scott and Jane Sauer, were given tickets to the event by another debutante, and "we were to figure out how we could disrupt this event," Sauer, who is now an artist in New Mexico, said in a 2005 interview with the Smithsonian.
The two entered the ball in evening gowns. Sauer dropped leaflets from the balcony to distract the crowd, while Scott slid down a power cable to the stage, "landed right at the feet of the Veiled Prophet, and ripped off his veil," Sauer recalled.
"And of course we were arrested and that was the longest time that I stayed in jail," she said.
Sauer said the Queen of Love and Beauty had "nothing to do with love and beauty; it had to do with money."
"And these were the people who had very tight control over the economics of the city of St. Louis. ... So you had to be part of the society, but if you had a lot of money you would eventually become part of the society, except if you were Black and Jewish," she said.
Sauer added that she was proud of what she did and thought "it was the right thing to do."
Over the years, other ACTION activists disrupted the ball, according to Post-Dispatch photo archives. In 1975, one activist unfurled a banner onstage that read "ACTION Protests Racist V.P." Other members sprayed irritants at attendees.
The first Black members of the organization joined in 1979.
"You know, it was so much a part of the fabric of the society of the city of St. Louis, and if you grew up with that around you, it became acceptable, just as I'm sure that barring Blacks from lunch counters became acceptable to some otherwise good people," Sauer said in the Smithsonian interview. "It was just part of their life."