Old photos of actress Ellie Kemper, who rose to prominence in roles in “The Office” and “Bridesmaids” before starring in Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” series, resurfaced over the weekend of Memorial Day and sparked controversy for his involvement with a St. Louis organization that has historically celebrated the wealthy white elite while excluding black members.
Kemper acknowledged the controversy a week later, writing in a lengthy Instagram statement Monday about his involvement in a “century-old organization that hosted the debutante’s ball had an unmistakably racist, sexist and elitist past.”
“I wasn’t aware of this story at the time, but ignorance is no excuse,” Kemper wrote. “I was old enough to have educated myself before I got involved.… I want to apologize to the people I disappointed, and I promise that in the future I will listen, continue to do so. educate and use my privilege for the best society that I think we are capable of becoming.
The actress admitted to having faced a “very natural temptation” over the past week “to tell you that your critics are wrong”, but said she values ”kindness, integrity and inclusiveness “and” realized that many forces behind the criticism are forces that I have spent my life supporting and accepting. ”
“I unequivocally deplore, denounce and reject white supremacy,” she added. “At the same time, I recognize that because of my face and my privilege, I am the beneficiary of a system that has delivered unequal justice and unequal rewards.”
What is the organization of the veiled prophet?
The Veiled Prophet organization, which originated in the late 1800s as a group of wealthy business owners in St. Louis, still holds an annual event for beginners called the Veiled Prophet Ball, in which the daughter of the one of the group members is crowned queen by a “Veiled Prophet”, a secret member who wears a white robe and a white veil covering her face.
“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 Trail in trendy couture gowns, and in front of family and friends. , are presented and honored for their contributions, ”reads a description of the event on the organization’s website Veiled Prophet.
A 1999 St. Louis Post-Dispatch archived article reported that “Elizabeth Claire ‘Ellie’ Kemper, 19, (was crowned) Queen of Love and Beauty in 1999” at this year’s Veiled Prophet Ball there while she was in her first year at Princeton University. .
The article noted that Kemper is a member of a historically wealthy Missouri banking family, including his father, David Kemper, a senior banking executive.
In response to the controversy, The Veiled Prophet organization described itself in a statement to USA TODAY last week as “devoted to civic advancement, economic contributions and charitable causes in St. Louis” before issuing a further statement on Monday apologizing “for the actions and images of our history “.
“After reflection, the Veiled Prophet Organization recognizes our past and recognizes the criticisms that have been addressed to us,” the latest statement continued. “Our lack of cultural awareness was and is bad. We are committed to change, allowing our actions to match the organization we are today.”
The organization went on to note that it “categorically rejects racism, in all its forms” and “is committed to the diversity and equity of our members, to community service initiatives and to the support of the region.” .
“Our hope is that as we move forward, the community sees us for who we are today and that together we can move this region forward for everyone,” the statement added.
Why is Ellie Kemper’s involvement controversial?
The Veiled Prophet, co-founded in the late 1800s by former Confederate officer Alonzo Slayback, was born out of a response by St. Louis’ business elite to the 1877 general strike, the historian wrote Thomas Spencer in his 2000 book, “The St. Louis Veiled Celebration of the Prophet: Power on Parade, 1877-1995. He added that members saw it as a public celebration of their elite status as well as a means of ‘assert their power over those who attempted to interrupt the status quo.
A 2014 article in The Atlantic pointed to the group’s existence as a “response to growing social unrest in the city, largely involving cooperation between white and (black) workers.”
“Symbolically taking control of the streets, the elites presented the history of St. Louis and American history by tracing the triumphs of great men – men who happened to be the ancestors of the members of the Veiled Prophet,” Spencer wrote. . “The parade was therefore intended to impress the masses towards passivity with its symbolic display of power.”
Civil rights protests spark changes within the Veiled Prophet organization
The organization only welcomed its first black members in 1979, years after protests by the civil rights group Action Committee to Improve Opportunities for Negroes (ACTION) and activists including Percy Green, according to the Resource Office. culture of St. Louis. The event was also forced to relocate after an ACTION lawsuit alleged the city tolerated racism by allowing the ball to be held at a city-owned venue, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
An image of a veiled prophet wearing what appear to be KKK robes has led many people on social media to link the two organizations, although historians say the image has been produced over the years. 1870, decades before KKK members began wearing balaclavas and white dresses in the early 1900s.
The Veiled Prophet’s Parade has since officially renamed the “America’s Birthday Parade,” although the ball and the organization as a whole have retained the original names.
“Much has changed since 1878, but the Veiled Prophet Organization will always carry on with its greatest gift to the community: a spectacular parade that has become one of St. Louis’s most enduring family traditions,” one reads in one. description on the organization’s website.
Contributor: Charles Trépany