Over Memorial Day weekend, photos were resurfaced of the actress — known for roles in Bridesmaids, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and The Office — being crowned the 1999 Queen of Love and Beauty at the debutante ball when she was 19 and a freshman at Princeton University. The ball (now called the Fair Saint Louis) is run by the St. Louis-based Veiled Prophet Organization, which was co-founded in the 1870s by former Confederate Colonel Alonzo Slayback, his brother, Confederate officer Charles Slayback and some white, wealthy business owners. The organization was known for racist and exclusionary practices prior to Kemper's involvement, including barring Black members until 1979 after protests from civil rights groups. The ball celebrated the city's wealthy white elite.
Kemper, 41, kept silent as the controversy grew all last week, but she finally spoke out — apologizing and denouncing white supremacy — in a statement on Monday.
"When I was 19 years old, I decided to participate in a debutante ball in my hometown," the statement began. "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. I was old enough to have educated myself before getting involved."
She went on to write, "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."
Kemper made it clear that she followed the online controversy last week as it played out.
"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," she wrote. "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."
She concluded by writing, "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. I want to apologize to the people I've disappointed, and I promise that moving forward I will list, continue to educate myself, and use my privilege in support of the better society I think we are capable of becoming."
As the Kemper photos were surfaced, through old press clippings, an image of a Veiled Prophet dressed in white robes with a hood was also dug up. It appeared similar to the attire worn by the white supremacist organization the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), leading Kemper to be called the "KKK princess" on social media. However, as Snopes points out, historians said the image was from the 1870s, decades before KKK members began wearing white hoods and robes. And the Veiled Prophet attire has changed through the years.
The Veiled Prophet Organization previously issued a statement in response to the controversy.
"The VP organization is dedicated to civic progress, economic contributions and charitable causes in St. Louis," the statement said last week. "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."
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