Ellie Kemper was once crowned queen of a debutante ball called the Veiled Prophet - here's what to know about its racist past

·6 min read
Ellie Kemper was once crowned queen of a debutante ball called the Veiled Prophet - here's what to know about its racist past
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Ellie Kemper is known for her role in "The Office," among others. Amanda Edwards/Getty Images
  • Old pictures resurfaced that showed Ellie Kemper at the 1991 Veiled Prophet Ball.

  • The debutante ball in St. Louis Missouri has a history of racism and elitism.

  • Some have now labeled Kemper a "KKK Queen," while others are defending the actress.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Ellie Kemper, who is best known for roles in Netflix's "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" and "The Office," is at the center of a controversy surrounding her involvement in an annual debutante ball held in St. Louis, Missouri.

On Monday, a photograph resurfaced online that showed the actress being crowned as the "1999 Veiled Prophet Queen of Love and Beauty" when she was 19.

Shortly after the photos resurfaced, some locals began to point out that the annual event was once exclusively held for the city's wealthy white elite and excluded Black members for decades.

Below, Insider breaks down everything you need to know about the Veiled Prophet Ball and Kemper's involvement.

The ball was founded by former confederate soldiers in 1878

The Veiled Prophet Ball at Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis.
The Veiled Prophet Ball at Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis. Dean Conger/Corbis via Getty Images

The Veiled Prophet Ball has been hosted in St. Louis, Missouri, for more than a century.

The event is organized by The Veiled Prophet, an organization co-founded in the late 1800s by brothers Alonzo and Charles Slayback, both former confederate soldiers who, according to an article by writer Scott Beauchamp in The Atlantic, aimed to create a secret society that blended Mardi Gras with the "symbolism used by the Irish poet Thomas Moore."

In his 2000 book, "The St. Louis Veiled Prophet Celebration: Power on Parade, 1877-1995," historian Thomas Spencer wrote that the ball was originally organized as a response from St. Louis' business elite who were trying to halt growing labor unrest in the city, specifically tied to the 1877 Railroad Strike in which railroad workers across the country protested for better pay and working conditions.

So the group created the myth of the Veiled Prophet of Khorassan, a fictional traveler who lived in St. Louis. This traveler wore an all-white robe complete with a white veil.

Every year during a celebration, "a person would be chosen by a secret board of local elites to anonymously play the role of the Veiled Prophet," Beauchamp wrote, with the anonymous person then crowning a Queen of Love and Beauty "from among the elite ball attendees."

"Each year, approximately sixty to seventy young women are chosen for their outstanding community service efforts and walk down the magnificent 72-foot-long Veiled Prophet runway in fashionable couture gowns," reads a description of the ball on the organization's website.

Ellie Kemper belongs to a wealthy and influential banking family

Ellie Kemper
Ellie Kemper. Stephen Lovekin/ Getty

Kemper was the event's 105th Queen of Love and Beauty in 1999, according to an archived article from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from that year. At the time, she was a 19-year-old student at Princeton.

The newspaper also noted that Kemper was born to Dorothy Ann Jannarone and David Woods Kemper, who was the chairman and CEO of Commerce Bancshares, a bank holding company. (David Woods Kemper's son John has now assumed the role, according to his LinkedIn profile.)

The company was created by Kemper's great-great-grandfather, the banker and railroad magnate William Thornton Kemper Sr., who also founded United Missouri Bank.

Kemper's grandmother, Mildred Lane Kemper, is also the namesake of the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in St. Louis. According to the museum's website, Mildred Lane Kemper "was a lifelong resident of Kansas City, Missouri" and "had an enduring interest in higher education."

In a 2017 interview with the LA Times, Kemper said she had "a very privileged, nice, warm childhood."

Black and Jewish Americans were barred from the Veiled Prophet organization for decades

At its inception, the Veiled Prophet barred Black and Jewish Americans from participating.

In fact, the organization didn't welcome Black members until 1979 after the civil rights group, Action Committee to Improve Opportunities for Negroes (ACTION), held protests at the ball.

The organization also filed a lawsuit, which alleged the city of St. Louis was condoning racism by allowing the ball to be held at a venue owned by the city, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

Insider reached out to the Veiled Prophet, but didn't immediately hear back.

Still, the organization told USA Today, in response to the recent controversy, that it's "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," the statement added. "We absolutely reject racism and have never partnered or associated with any organization that harbors these beliefs."

The Veiled Prophet is not directly linked to the Klu Klux Klan

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An 1878 newspaper illustration of a "Veiled Prophet." Wikipedia Commons.

After Kemper's involvement in the Veiled Prophet Ball resurfaced earlier this week, many people tied the organization and the ball to the white supremacist terrorist group, the Klu Klux Klan, on account of the original imagery of the Veiled Prophet, which showed a character brandishing a shotgun and wearing white robes.

Devin Thomas O'Shea, a St. Louis journalist who has researched and written extensively on the Veiled Prophet, told NPR in 2019 that "the first Veiled Prophet is very clearly decipherable as a first-wave Ku Klux Klansman. Especially to Black St. Louisans, the symbology would not have been lost on them."

Although some historians have noted that while illustrations of the original Veiled Prophet now draw comparisons to the garb worn by the KKK, the Klan did not officially adopt the uniform of white robes and hoods until its resurgence in 1915, after the release of D.W. Griffith's film "The Birth of a Nation," decades after the St. Louis event was founded.

Some have now labeled Kemper a 'KKK Queen,' while others are defending the actress

Kemper has yet to respond to revelations. Insider has reached out to Kemper, but didn't hear back.

Still, many fans continue to share their reactions to the discovery.

"So was no one gonna tell me Ellie kemper aka kimmy Schmidt was crowned KKK queen in 1999," one Twitter user wrote.

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Another tweeted: "Ellie Kemper being a KKK princess is so random that I'm not even sure where to begin with the questions."

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The Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro tweeted in defense of Kemper.

"There is not a single iota of evidence that Ellie Kemper is racist," he wrote. "So naturally, Twitter is trending her and blue checks are calling her a 'KKK princess.' What absolute garbage."

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