Culture

Junk Explained: What Is Actually Going On With Ellie Kemper And That Racist Pageant?

Ellie Kemper apologised after being "outed" as a 'KKK Princess', but are there even any truths to the claims?

Ellie Kemper Veiled Prophet KKK Princess

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Ellie Kemper has apologised for resurfaced photos that showed the actor participating in the Veiled Prophet Ball — a beauty pageant run by an organisation rooted in white supremacy.

Taking to Instagram yesterday, the actor known best for her roles in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Bridesmaids and The Office, posted a lengthy statement addressing the Veiled Prophet-run debutante ball she took part in when she was 19.

“Hi guys — when I was 19-years-old, I decided to participate in a debutante ball in my hometown. The century-old organisation that hosted the debutante ball had an unquestionable racist, sexist and elitist past,” wrote Kemper.

“I was not aware of this history at the time, but ignorance is no excuse. I was old enough to have educated myself before getting involved.”

“I unequivocally deplore, denounce, and reject white supremacy. At the same time, I acknowledge that because of my race and privilege, I am the beneficiary of a system that has dispensed unequal justice and unequal rewards.”

“I believe strongly in the values of kindness, integrity and inclusiveness,” she ended her statement. “I want to apologise 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.”

 

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Kemper’s apology has come after she was slammed online when photos circulated showing the actor being crowned the 1999 “Queen of Love and Beauty” by the Veiled Prophet Organisation.

The actor was then quickly brandished a “KKK Princess” when Veiled Prophet’s elitist and racist origins were revealed, with people trying to understand why someone like Kemper would ever associate with such an organisation.

So what started this “KKK Princess” discourse and exactly how bad is Veiled Prophet? Let’s dissect:

Why Has The Internet Been Calling Ellie Kemper A “KKK Princess”?

The Veiled Prophet Ball is a pageant that takes place in St. Louis, Missouri and is run by the Veiled Prophet Organisation (VP).

Formed in 1878, the VP was founded by a couple of brothers who were former confederate soldiers and was a group comprised only of the rich, white business elites in the St. Louis area. In fact, up until 1979 — a hundred years after the group was formed — Black and Jewish people were banned from joining the elite group.

The Atlantic report that the secret society was formed to remind the lower class where they stood as a response to “growing labor unrest in the city, much of it involving cooperation between white and black workers” following the 1877 Great Railroad Strike.

As civil unrest and the country’s first general strike unfolded in St. Louis, the Veiled Prophet Organisation formed as a way to “take back the public stage from populist demands for social and economic justice” and to “reinforce the values of the elite the working class of the city”.

Combining the celebration of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras with symbolism used by Irish poet Thomas Moore, VP created the myth of the Veiled Prophet of Khorassan — a cloaked, fictional traveller who would bless the city.

The organisation described this prophet to be a “beloved despot, evasive but real” who “rules with an iron hand encased in velvet”.

Basically, what the Veiled Prophet Organisation ended up producing was a Mardi Gras-esque grand celebration called VP Fair, which has continued to this day after being renamed to Fair Saint Louis.

Along with this city-wide celebration, the VP also created the Veiled Prophet Ball to act as a lavish event where a “Queen of Love and Beauty” would be selected from the daughters of the wealthy white attendees. In 1999, Ellie Kemper was crowned the 105th Queen of Love and Beauty.

However, the issue is that the “Prophet” — whose role was to select this queen at the ball — would wear a white hood and robe similar to those worn by the Ku Klux Klan, hence the title “KKK Princess” title given to Kemper over the last week.

Does Veiled Prophet Have Any Links To The Ku Klux Klan?

The earliest images of the first Veiled Prophet in 1878 show a masked figure wearing a white robe and pointed white hat, while menacingly holding two shotguns and pistol.

Along with the image, the Missouri Republican added the message that “It will be readily observed from the accoutrements of the Prophet that the procession is not likely to be stopped by street cars or anything else” to demonstrate the power the cloaked figure had against those workers striking in the streets.

While this outfit has changed over the years to reflect a more religious type of figure who is more reminiscent of the Pope, it’s hard to not automatically draw a link to the Ku Klux Klan whose robes bear clear resemblance to the original VP uniform.

However, the KKK did not adopt the white hooded robe until 1915 when Civil War film, The Birth of the Nation, premiered and revived the Klan. In the film, Klan members wore white robes and hoods that inspired the now distinctive outfit worn by the white supremacist group.


Even still, calling the Veiled Prophet Organisation racist isn’t entirely misplaced. While the group may not be directly linked to the Ku Klux Klan, it was still a “secret society” that was comprised of only rich, white men until it was derailed in the 1970s.

In 1969, protests begun to surround the Veiled Prophet Ball as a group of 30 Black activists picketed the event for being both racist and elitist. In 1972, ACTION protesters even managed to unmask the Veiled Prophet after activist and white ally Gena Scott slid down a power cable to reveal the identity of the hidden figure who was always kept a secret after the very first Prophet’s identity was revealed.

Seven years later, Black people were finally able to join the Veiled Prophet Organisation.

So What Does Veiled Prophet Do Today?

While the VP has racist and elitist origins, today the Veiled Prophet Organisation describes itself as a “135-year-old civic, and philanthropic organisation founded… to promote the city of St. Louis and enrich the quality of life for its citizens”.

Both the celebration, which is has been known as Fair Saint Louis since 1992, and the Veiled Prophet Ball both take place to this day. The fair takes place in July each year, while the ball occurs in December.

However, over time the VP Ball was reworked to become less of a public spectacle and more of a private event over the ’80s and ’90s, which had occurred by the time Ellie Kemper was crowned Queen of Love and Beauty in 1999.

Today 60 to 70 women are chosen to attend the ball based on their community service efforts, according to the VP’s website. This is a stark difference from the original way potential queens were chosen in the past — based on how wealthy and influential your family was. Kemper, who comes from a wealthy banking family, would have fit this bill even prior to any changes around community service were introduced.

In response to the controversies surrounding Ellie Kemper crowning, the Veiled Prophet Organisation told USA Today that the group “acknowledges our past” but “categorically rejects racism, in any form”.

“Upon reflection, the Veiled Prophet Organization acknowledges our past and recognises the criticism levied our way,” the group said. “Our lack of cultural awareness was and is wrong. We are committed to change, allowing our actions to match the organisation we are today.”

“Our hope is that moving forward, the community sees us for who we are today and together we can move this region forward for everyone.”


Michelle Rennex is a senior writer at Junkee. She tweets at @michellerennex.