Ellie Kemper Responds to Backlash Over Debutante Past in Historically Racist Ball: 'I Unequivocally Deplore, Denounce, and Reject White Supremacy' [Updated]

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Ellie Kemper speaks onstage during the 2019 Ad Council Dinner on December 05, 2019 in New York City.
Ellie Kemper speaks onstage during the 2019 Ad Council Dinner on December 05, 2019 in New York City.

The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has at last broken her silence about the controversy that made her a trending topic several days last week—and not in a good way. As previously reported by The Root, the earnest and typically chipper redhead who was also part of the ensemble casts of The Office and Bridesmaids raised ire and eyebrows last week when it was revealed via a series of photos and newspaper clippings that she was a past “Queen of Love and Beauty” in her native St. Louis, Mo.’s “Veiled Prophet” ball (now known as the Fair Saint Louis), an annual event with decidedly racist origins.

The Atlantic’s Scott Beauchamp (a fellow St. Louis native) gave more context to the Veiled Prophet’s history, which was founded in 1878, by “grain executive and former Confederate cavalryman Charles Slayback” and other elite white St. Louisans as a “secret society.” Though the society’s purposes were multifold, perhaps the most notable among them was Beauchamp’s assertion that it was created to quell cooperation and intermingling of the city’s white and Black working class citizens, writing:

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In fact, to underline the message of class and race hegemony, the image of the first Veiled Prophet is armed with a shotgun and pistol and is strikingly similar in appearance to a Klansman...The message was clear: We, the bankers and businessmen, have a monopoly on violence and wealth. We are grand and mysterious, and also to be feared. The first Veiled Prophet, the only one ever willingly revealed by the organization, turned out to be St. Louis Police Commissioner John G. Priest, an active participant in quelling the railroad strikes the year before.

Umm...yikes. Gotta love a good ol’ “divide and conquer”—but we digress. Regarding the aforementioned Veiled Prophet Ball, as noted by The Root’s Staff Entertainment Writer Tonja Stidhum, “African Americans were eventually allowed to join in 1979 after protest...but...why would we want to???”

Well, back in 1999, the then 19-year-old Kemper clearly did. Though the Veiled Prophet’s association with the Ku Klux Klan remains dubious, the now 41-year-old Kemper, quickly crowned “KKKemper” amid the controversy, expressed regret over her participation on Monday, releasing a statement on Instagram which read (h/t People):

Hi guys, when I was 19 years old, I decided to participate in a debutante ball in my hometown. The century-old organization that hosted the debutante ball had an unquestionably racist, sexist and elitist past. I was not aware of the 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 my privilege, I am the beneficiary of a system that has dispensed unequal justice and unequal rewards.

Having been dragged to St. Louis and back by social media, the actress directly addressed the criticism, adding:

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.

I want to apologize 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.

Thanks for reading this.

Well, there you have it—in a world of mea culpas over past blackface incidents and antebellum parties, it’s become fairly boilerplate at this point—but accountability is always welcome. In addition, the Veiled Prophet Organization reportedly also denounced white supremacy in the wake of the scandal, releasing a statement to People on June 1 that appeared to directly disavow any association with the KKK.

The VP organization is dedicated to civic progress, economic contributions and charitable causes in St. Louis,” the statement began. “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.

As for Kemper’s Kimmy Schmidt co-star Tituss Burgess (who’s really the only person we want to hear from), he has refrained from making any public statement on the controversy. However, as evidenced by Kemper’s presence as a top commenter on an Instagram post released just ahead of the drama, the two have seemingly remained friendly since ending the series.

Updated: Tuesday, 6/8/21 at 1:09 p.m., ET: As suspected, the friendship between Tituss Burgess and his former co-star remains strong. As a gesture of support, the actor-musician reposted Kemper’s apology to his own Instagram page late Monday night with the caption:

“I love my Ellie ❤️, Oh, & P.S. Next time, just ask me, I’ll tell ya what to do 🥰”

Kemper acknowledged the shoutout, commenting: “I love you Tituss ❤️❤️❤️”