Ellie Kemper has responded to backlash about her 1999 involvement in a St. Louis debutante ball with racist origins.
“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,” Kemper wrote Monday on Instagram.
A post shared by Ellie Kemper (@elliekemper)
After a Twitter user posted on last week about the existence of the Veiled Prophet Ball, others quickly circulated newsletter clippings that showed Kemper’s participation in the event. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch archives, Kemper, who was a 19-year-old Princeton University freshman at the time, was crowned the Queen of Love and Beauty at the Veiled Prophet Ball on Dec. 24, 1999, at the Adam’s Mark Hotel. The hotel was turned into the Hyatt Regency St. Louis Riverfront in 2008.
“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 dispensed unequal justice and unequal rewards,” she continued.
Founded in 1878 by 14 wealthy St. Louis businessmen, the Veiled Prophet Organization was partly created in “response to growing labor unrest in the city, much of it involving cooperation between white and Black workers,” and barred African Americans and Jewish Americans from joining, according to an article published by The Atlantic in 2014. In fact, the first Veiled Prophet was St. Louis Police Commissioner John G. Priest, who helped thwart the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. A resurfaced illustration of him donning a hood and white robes, and holding a shotgun and pistol, has drawn renewed comparisons to the Ku Klux Klan, but the event has no known associations with the white supremacist group.
“There is very natural temptation, when you become the subject of internet criticism, to tell yourself that your detractors are getting it 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,” Kemper’s statement read.
“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.”
The Veiled Prophet Ball, which took place around Christmastime, was a “powerful symbol of that reassertion of control” that doubled down on the “static racial and economic power structure of the city,” Scott Beauchamp wrote for The Atlantic.
The ball, during which a secret committee chose a man — whose identity was kept secret — as the Veiled Prophet, who in turn chose a Veiled Prophet queen, was one of several events organized by the group of elites.
The organization made efforts to erase its past, including opening its doors to African American members in 1979. In 1992, the ball was renamed the Fair Saint Louis, “nominally erasing the connection to its past,” according to The Atlantic.
Kemper hails from one of the wealthiest banking families in the Midwest. Kemper’s great-great-grandfather, William Thornton Kemper Sr., developed the Commerce Bancshares and United Missouri Bank in the early 20th century.
She’s best known for portraying Erin Hannon on five seasons of “The Office” and headlining her own series, Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” from 2015 to 2019. She earned two Emmy nominations for the latter. The actor also appeared in various comedy films such as “Bridesmaids” and “21 Jump Street.” Kemper is set to star in Disney Plus’ upcoming “Home Alone” reboot alongside Archie Yates, Rob Delaney and Kenan Thompson.
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