Fact Check: Ellie Kemper, the KKK, and the ‘Veiled Prophet Ball’

The actor’s ties to a controversial St. Louis debutante ball were unearthed in a 1999 photograph.

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Person, Human, Clothing

Claim

Actor and comedian Ellie Kemper was crowned 1999 Queen of Love and Beauty at the "Veiled Prophet Ball" in St. Louis, Missouri. The ball is affiliated with an organization that has a racist history, including ties to the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).

Rating

What's True

Actor Ellie Kemper was crowned the 1999 Queen of Love and Beauty at the Veiled Prophet Ball, a long-running debutante ball for St. Louis’ wealthy society. A group known today as the Veiled Prophet Organization (VPO), which staged the ball, was known for racist and exclusionary practices, including barring Black members until 1979, and faced numerous civil rights protests over its history.

What's False

There is no known affiliation between the VPO and the KKK, even though the VPO’s past practices were racist. An 1878 image of the Veiled Prophet in his accoutrements is similar to the hooded figure of a Klansman, but the typical white Klan hoods and robes did not come into use until 1915.

Origin

The troubling history of a society ball for young debutantes has come under scrutiny through an unlikely figure — Kimmy Schmidt. No, not fictional Kimmy Schmidt, who was rescued from a cult in the popular Netflix show, but the actor who played her.

Ellie Kemper, known for her roles in “Bridesmaids,” “The Office,” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” was at the center of an internet controversy when someone found old photographs of her winning a title at a debutante ball allegedly linked to a white supremacist group in her home city of St. Louis, Missouri.

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in 1999, Kemper won the title of “Queen of Love and Beauty” at the “Veiled Prophet Ball,” an annual event for debutantes, that was organized by a society known as the Veiled Prophet Organization (VPO). The ball still takes place in December every year, except in 2020 on account of the pandemic.

We found the original clippings from the newspaper in 1999:

The VPO was reportedly co-founded in 1878 by a former Confederate officer and historically excluded Black and Jewish people. Originally intended as a celebration for the city’s wealthy, the Veiled Prophet Ball and the events surrounding it were, according to one historian, meant to reinforce the elite’s values over working class activism in the city. The VPO only admitted Black members in 1979.

Twitter users also honed in on an image depicting a “Veiled Prophet” from 1878, which shows a person wearing a white costume and a pointed hat. The image was eerily similar to the white robes and hood worn by the white supremacist organization the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Many started calling Kemper the “KKK princess” alleging ties between the VPO and the KKK and highlighting the racist history behind the VPO’s activities.

We learned that while the group does have a troubling history of racial discrimination within the organization, there is no clear evidence tying the group to the KKK. While Kemper did participate and win a title at the ball in 1999, there is also no evidence that she herself harbors racist beliefs.

We reached out to representatives for Kemper for comment and will update this post if we get any more information. Below, we break down the history of the VPO, the ball, and the claims made about Kemper.

What is the Veiled Prophet’s Ball?

It began in 1878, when a group of prominent businessmen formed an organization that instituted an annual ball and parade, which was presided over by a mysterious “Veiled Prophet.” This was usually one member of the organization in disguise, whose identity was not meant to be revealed. The parade ostensibly was meant to generate pride and interest in St. Louis as a prominent city. At the ball, daughters of Veiled Prophet members were presented and the Veiled Prophet would select one to reign as the Queen of Love and Beauty.

The idea for this organization is commonly attributed to two brothers, Confederate Colonel Alonzo Slayback and his brother, Charles Slayback, a Confederate cavalryman. According to an essay in The Common Reader, a monthly publication by Washington University in St. Louis, the Veiled Prophet was drawn from a poem by Thomas Moore titled “The Story of the Veiled Prophet of Khorassan,” found in the book of poetry “Lalla Rookh,” published in 1817. The prophet in the poem is a wealthy man from the East, who is rewarded with opulent receptions wherever he goes.

Academics interpret the Veiled Prophet of the poem as a symbol of moral depravity, however, who rapes and corrupts the beautiful and virtuous high priestess Zelica, allegedly the inspiration for the Queen of Love and Beauty.

The Veiled Prophet in St. Louis, according to a book the organization published in 1928, is meant to be a “beloved despot, evasive but real,” who “rules with an iron hand encased in velvet.” The organization’s interpretation of the Veiled Prophet showed him as a symbol of moral rectitude.

According to historian Thomas Spencer’s book “The St. Louis Veiled Prophet Celebration: Power on Parade, 1877-1995,” the parade was the business elite’s response to the worker’s strike of 1877, meant to “awe the masses towards passivity with its symbolic show of power.”

But it was civil rights protests from the 1960s to the 1980s that made people of the city perceive the parade and ball as wasteful and conspicuous consumption. Black activists with the Action Committee to Improve Opportunities for Negroes (ACTION) protested the events. An integrated group with Black leadership and white members who helped them get access to spaces normally off limits to minorities, the group carried out direct action protests, and sought economic justice through more jobs for minorities. By protesting the parade and ball, they were targeting big businessmen and corporations.

They also held parody balls which mocked the largely white Veiled Prophet events and crowned a Black Queen of Human Justice. In 1972, ACTION even managed to infiltrate a ball through three white women members who obtained tickets. According to The Common Reader:

As one woman shouted “Down with the VP!” another swung down from the balcony on a cable to the stage (the fall crushed three of her ribs). She told an official that she had fallen, and managed to sneak on stage, standing right next to the seated Veiled Prophet. She pulled the veil from his face, and then was quickly rushed offstage by the Bengal Lancers, the VP’s protective guard. The VP, a Monsanto executive vice president, put his crown and veil back on, and the ball proceeded as usual.

During this period of civil rights protests, the parade avoided Black neighborhoods on its route. ACTION’s ultimate goal was to pressure business leaders to give jobs to more Black people. Members of ACTION also lay down in front of parade floats, chained themselves to floats and distributed leaflets, and reportedly picketed the balls with signs like “VEILED PROFIT$” or “VP=KKK.” Percy Green, an activist behind ACTION said of the Veiled Prophet ball, parade, and the businessmen involved, “No wonder these people don’t hire Blacks because they are socially involved in these all-white organizations […].” 

Indeed, the organization remained primarily white until 1979 when it admitted its first Black members, who were three doctors. Older members reportedly insisted that the doctors were admitted because they had “earned” their place among the elite.

We reached out to the modern-day VPO. A spokesperson described the ball as “a venue to introduce young ladies, generally in their sophomore year of college, to the St. Louis community and instill the value of community service. During the preceding summer, the debutants and their families contribute more than 3,500 hours of volunteer time to countless service projects coordinated through the Veiled Prophet Community Service Initiative to participate in the Ball.”

Is VPO Connected to the KKK?

Rumors of a connection with the KKK grew from the first available image of a Veiled Prophet from an 1878 issue of the Missouri Republican, which shows a figure dressed in white robes with a pointed cap.

The image does not actually indicate the VPO was connected to the KKK. The KKK did not use this uniform until the early 1900s, when the 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation” depicted the white robes and hoods. Around 1921, the KKK was mass-producing similar white robes and hoods, decades after this particular image.

Since that first image, the Veiled Prophet’s outfits have varied, as seen in these photographs of the celebrations over decades. The outfits include elaborate robes that are more reminiscent of the Pope’s regalia. This does not, however, discount the role of the VPO in perpetuating exclusionary practices over the course of its history.

A spokesperson for the VPO denied any connection to racist organizations. The source did not initially respond to our queries about their exclusionary policy that admitted Black members into the organization as late as 1979.

In a statement, the group said: “The VP organization is dedicated to civic progress, economic contributions and charitable causes in St. Louis. Our organization believes in and promotes inclusion, diversity and equality for this region. We absolutely reject racism and have never partnered or associated with any organization that harbors these beliefs.”

The VPO told us, “Membership in the organization is open to men of all backgrounds and experiences. The organization is committed to diversity and actively seeks members with an interest in community service and a commitment to making St. Louis a better place to live for all.”

It is inaccurate to refer to Kemper as a “KKK princess” given that the VPO itself has no known ties to the KKK, even though its role in systems that uphold racism cannot be discounted.

What is the VPO Today, and How is Kemper Connected?

The ball and parade have continued in a range of forms since then. The organization today is commonly referred to as the Veiled Prophet Organization (VPO). According to a statement the group sent us and its website, VPO carries out volunteer work and donates to numerous causes:

We are proud of our commitment to support civic St. Louis for 143 years, including:

Annually hosting dozens of community service projects and donating tens of thousands of dollars and service hours to support a variety of charity partners to create a stronger, more equitable and prosperous St. Louis, including: Beyond Housing, Mission: St. Louis, Missouri Veterans Endeavor, North Side Community School, Promise Community Homes, Brightside St. Louis, Forest Park Forever, and many others.

Making many significant infrastructure and cultural gifts to the City, including lighting of the Eads Bridge, the Mississippi River Overlook and the mile-long Riverfront Promenade, and partnering in providing the Grand Staircase beneath the Arch as part of the National Park System and to the irrigation system as part of Forest Park Forever.

Hosting two major free events in St. Louis, including America’s Birthday Parade and Fair St. Louis. Both events reflect the diversity of the St. Louis community and include a wide variety of partners – such as PrideFest and the Annie Malone Parade.

Kemper came from a wealthy and influential banking family, and she has talked about her upbringing, saying she had a “had a very privileged, nice, warm childhood.” Her relationship to the organization, which still appears to be influential in St. Louis’ cultural and social landscape, can be attributed to her social standing and family history. While she may have certainly benefited from her background and privilege, it does not indicate that she is actively a part of upholding racist systems and beliefs.

On June 7, 2021, Kemper addressed the controversy in a statement on her Instagram account:

She added: 

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

There is a very natural temptation when you become the subject of internet criticism, to tell yourself that your detractors are getting it all wrong. But at some point last week, I realized that a lot of the forces behind the criticism are forces that I’ve spent my life supporting and agreeing with.

I believe strongly in the values of kindness, integrity and inclusiveness. I try to live my life in accordance with these values. 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.

Soon after Kemper made her statement, VPO sent us an additional statement, addressing their history of racism and exclusion:

Upon reflection, the Veiled Prophet Organization acknowledges our past and recognizes the criticism levied our way. We sincerely apologize for the actions and images from our history. Additionally, our lack of cultural awareness was and is wrong. We are committed to change, allowing our actions to match the organization we are today.

The VP Organization of today categorically rejects racism, in any form. Today’s VP is committed to diversity and equity in our membership, community service initiatives and support for the region. 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.

We are, and always will be committed to the success of the region and making St Louis a better place to live for all.

The organization itself has no known connection to the KKK but did uphold exclusionary and racist policies within its ranks. It was also a target of protests by the civil rights movement. Kemper participated and won a title in the annual ball, decades after it admitted its first Black members. While the ball and organization play a role in a long history of racism in the United States, which implicates many institutions, there is no evidence tying this group to the KKK, nor any evidence that Kemper is actively racist herself. As such, we rate this claim a “Mixture.”

Recent Updates
  1. June 8, 2021: Updated with Ellie Kemper's statement, and a follow up statement from the VPO.
  2. June 3, 2021: Updated with VPO's additional comments.
  3. June 2, 2021: Updated with ACTION's Percy Green quote.
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