Ellie Kemper’s apologized this week for attending the Veiled Prophet debutante ball when she was 19, where she was crowned the “Queen of Love and Beauty”. But for Kemper’s apology to have any real merit, she should now become a public advocate for fair and equal justice for the today’s working class. She can achieve that, in part, by publicly encouraging support for President Biden’s two voter rights bills and his economic Build Back Better bill. I say that as someone who used to coordinate protests against the Veiled Prophet Ball and who experienced the reality of a racist St Louis firsthand.
In her apology on Instagram, Kemper wrote that she “rejects white supremacy” and that she realizes she is “the beneficiary of a system that has dispensed unequal justice and unequal rewards”. She spoke of a “better society” and further educating herself. But that apology needs to have teeth if we are to believe it. We deserve more than words on Instagram.
From 1967 to 1984, my organization, ACTION, held annual protests against the ball — not because we wanted to see Black debutantes allowed in, but because of the employment opportunities lost for the entire Black community when such all-white events were used for networking. At the Veiled Prophet Ball, which had deep roots in racism, white-only members of high society would meet and mingle. We viewed it as a Ku Klux Klan by another name. And when we discovered that many of the CEOs of companies that were actively practicing race discrimination through their hiring practices were in attendance, we decided to bring the protest to them.
The Veiled Prophet Ball wasn’t just racist — it was sexist, too. There were a number of young women who disliked the idea of being “auctioned off” by their fathers to the highest bidder, and those young women were able to provide us with official invitations to the ball. Once we had those in hand, we strategized as a group. Most of us were Black, but we would need white participants for any infiltration. Two white women who were members of ACTION, Jane Sauer and Gena Scott, put themselves forward for the task.
After entering the auditorium, Scott and Sauer, dressed in their white formal evening gowns, proceeded upstairs to the balcony area, where they stayed for a while to observe proceedings. Sauer then went to the opposite end of the auditorium and began dropping hundreds of ACTION leaflets denouncing the event from the balcony to gain the attention of the observing audience from above and below.
During that period of confusion, Scott spotted a backstage cable and began climbing down it to the first floor. It broke partway down, causing her to fall to the floor and to be winded for a few minutes. After she regained her composure, she worked her way behind the stage curtains to where the so-called Veiled Prophet was sitting. Scott then snatched the Veiled Prophet’s veiled headgear from his head and threw it out in front of the stage, where it landed on the floor.
The audience was shocked and began to shout out. Scott, who continued to stand behind the Veiled Prophet, reported that he, too, was shook up. The security guards who had been standing on each sides of the Veiled Prophet were also temporarily stunned. After about a minute or so with the Veiled Prophet sitting unveiled for all to see, one finally walked out to pick up the veiled headgear and restored it to the VP’s head.
Scott and Sauer were subsequently arrested and charged with general and individual peace disturbance.
The Veiled Prophet himself was publicly identified to all the daily newspapers by ACTION as Tom K. Smith, Jr., a vice president of Monsanto Corporation. Both the Post Dispatch and Globe Democrat daily newspapers refused to reveal his identity. The St. Louis Journalism Review, a bi-weekly, was the only news journal that identified him to readers.
Prior to the scheduled court date, the charges against both ACTION protesters were dropped. That was the ‘70s — it wasn’t until the ‘90s that Ellie Kemper attended the ball as a 19-year-old, and she says that she wasn’t aware of the event’s racist past. She is correct in stating that not being aware of the VP’s racist, sexist and elitist practices is no real excuse.
Black men and women of all colors were held back by the business deals done at the Veiled Prophet Ball historically. And it’s worth repeating that that’s what we were concerned about when we infiltrated the event: we didn’t want to be a part of the ball itself. We wanted the VP organization to be abolished altogether if the city of St Louis was to begin freeing itself from institutional white racism and become a prosperous city for all.
Percy Green II is the former Chairperson of the direct-action anti-racist protest organization ACTION. Green was also the plaintiff in ‘Green vs. McDonnell-Douglas’ fair-employment landmark US Supreme Court Case, May 1973, which established the basis in determining whether or not racial discrimination occurred under a pretext by the employer as charged.