The ritual was rich with symbolism. A secret board of local White elites would choose a man to play the role of the “veiled prophet,” who in turn would pick a “queen of love and beauty” among the gala attendees.
Attired in a frothy ball gown and lush tokens, such as a tiara or pearls, the chosen young lady would then be paraded in front of St. Louis’s elite society, marking a celebration of her social debut as well as social status, power and wealth.
In 1999, 19-year-old Princeton University student Ellie Kemper participated in the century-old tradition and was crowned as the queen of love and beauty in the debutante ball hosted by the Veiled Prophet Organization — a secretive and exclusive society run for decades by wealthy White families.
After photos of the ceremony surfaced last week, prompting a backlash, the “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” actress offered a public apology on Monday in a statement posted to her Instagram account.
She said that when she participated, she was unaware of the organization’s “unquestionably racist, sexist and elitist past,” but she conceded that “ignorance is no excuse” and that she should have educated herself before getting involved.
The actress, who is White, went a step further to “deplore, denounce, and reject white supremacy,” while acknowledging that her own race and privilege have allowed her to benefit from a “system that has dispensed unequal justice and unequal rewards.”
“I believe strongly in the values of kindness, integrity and inclusiveness. I try to live my life in accordance with these values,” she added. “I want to apologize to the people I’ve disappointed.”
Amid the recent backlash, the Veiled Prophet Organization rejected the allegations of racism and elitism, saying it “promotes inclusion, diversity and equality” in the region, People Magazine reported.
After the photos surfaced of the teenage Kemper at the ceremony, tweets painted the actress as racist, some going so far as to call her a “KKK Princess,” alluding to images of members using pointy white hats that Twitter users compared with those of the Ku Klux Klan. There is no evidence that the Veiled Prophet Organization has ties to the white supremacist group.
In an invigorated moment for social justice and racial reckoning in the United States, the membership in or alliance with social organizations, secret societies and private clubs are coming under heightened scrutiny.
In March, the Order of Angell, a secret society for seniors at the University of Michigan, announced it would disband after growing criticism of the group’s history of what critics called racism and elitism.
Part of a Missouri family that includes wealthy bankers and prominent business leaders, Kemper had the traditional social credentials to become queen of the Veiled Prophet Ball.
According to St. Louis’s Cultural Resources website, “white male community leaders” created the “Mystic Order of the Veiled Prophet of the Enchanted Realm,” which then founded the gala, renamed “Fair St. Louis” in 1992 to “reinforce the notion of a benevolent cultural elite.” Former Confederate officer Charles Slayback was one such founder.
The website depicts the traditional ball as a celebration that “has represented for St. Louisans a perceived link between different components of the community in a holiday celebration.”
According to historian Thomas M. Spencer in “The St. Louis Veiled Prophet Celebration: Power On Parade 1877-1995,” the primary goal of events such as the gala and an accompanying parade was less benevolent.
It was a way for members of the elite to “take back the public stage from populist demands for social and economic justice” and to “reinforce the values of the elite on the working class of the city,” according to an essay in the Atlantic written by literary critic Scott Beauchamp that includes excerpts from Spencer’s book.
The exclusive and secretive society has been praised by past members as a paragon of prestige and tradition, according to local media reports. Others call it a symbol of the state’s long history of social inequality and racial discrimination.
The Veiled Prophet Organization did not admit Black members until 1979 — more than 100 years after it was founded — and it did not admit Jews for many years, according to Beauchamp.
In the 1970s, members of the group Action, led by civil rights leader Percy Green, infiltrated the ball and unmasked that year’s “veiled prophet,” who was identified as the vice president of Monsanto.
A representative for the Veiled Prophet Organization told the St. Louis Beacon that the present-day organization is really “just an organization of businessmen” who “enthusiastically” promote the city.
Addressing the internet backlash she faced last week, Kemper said Monday that “a lot of the forces behind the criticism” are forces she has long supported and agreed 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,” she wrote.