Why Twitter thinks Ellie Kemper is racist over a debutante crown she won in 1999

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Twitter users have been quick to paint actor Ellie Kemper as racist after her never-secret teenage involvement in an elite society’s celebration in St. Louis, Mo., recently resurfaced online. They’ve even gone so far as to call her a “KKK Princess.”

Confused? Here’s the backstory: In December 1999, when she was 19, the star of “The Office” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” was honored by an organization with a racially exclusionary past. Some have claimed the group has ties to the Ku Klux Klan.

Others, including the professor whose writings are being used by some on Twitter to criticize Kemper, are baffled by the brouhaha.

Neither Kemper, 41, nor her manager immediately responded to The Times’ request for comment Tuesday.

Here’s what we know so far.

Was Kemper really crowned ‘KKK Princess’?

No. Of course not. She was named Queen of Love and Beauty at the Fair Saint Louis, the 105th to be given the title. The event was canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic but the title was awarded through 2019.

Why are people connecting Fair St. Louis to the Ku Klux Klan?

Fair Saint Louis was, until 1992, called the Veiled Prophet Fair and is a well-known celebration by some of St. Louis’ wealthiest locals. It was put on by the Order of the Veiled Prophet. For generations, VP, as it’s known colloquially, was a “lily-white group,” according to Thomas Spencer, a professor of history at Texas A&M University-Kingsville who wrote the book “The St. Louis Veiled Prophet Celebration: Power on Parade, 1877-1995.”

A 2014 Atlantic article that excerpted passages from Spencer’s book is now being quoted in tweets condemning Kemper, though Spencer says what Kemper was attending was essentially a debutante ball.

Spencer says VP was intended to maintain the social and economic order desired by “elites” in the late 1870s, creating a mythology involving a hooded figure called the “Veiled Prophet.” The image of the initial Veiled Prophet strikingly resembles classic depictions of Klansmen in white hoods.

“The first parade has some pretty overt racial symbolism and intimidation,” Spencer told The Times in an interview Tuesday. “The VP was armed, and there was an executioner’s block on the float, etc.”

What is the Veiled Prophet Ball?

The ball has been part of the organization’s lavish celebrations, which have included parades televised to millions. At the ball, the disguised member serving as that year’s Veiled Prophet crowns that year’s Queen of Love and Beauty. Kemper was honored in 1999, 20 years after VP finally began admitting Black members; her crowning was covered by local newspapers.

“Here’s how I think about it: It’s a debutante ball that has existed for a long time,” said Spencer, likening it to other debutante balls in St. Louis and to similar events elsewhere. “The daughters are doing it because their dad wants them to do so, and it’s a way to honor their father.”

The celebrations drew many protests over the years over the organization’s racial exclusivity. Its first Black member joined in 1979.

“In the 1970s, the organization almost shut down” over protests, said Spencer. Up until the 1950s, he said, “It really had this sort of power-consolidating function, and then when they created other ways of running the show, with [the policy-driving group] Civic Progress and other organizations, it became purely social.”

Is the Order of the Veiled Prophet linked to the Klan?

Devin Thomas O’Shea, a journalist who has researched VP, said in a 2019 NPR interview, “That 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.”

In the same broadcast, St. Louis civil rights activist Percy Green of ACTION (Action Committee to Improve Opportunities for Negroes), a since-disbanded organization that was a longtime thorn in VP’s side, said, “ACTION’s view of the white Veiled Prophet [was] as a Ku Klux Klan organization by another name.”

However, while echoing the substance of O’Shea’s remark, Spencer asserted that he “never found any close connections between the two organizations. There were several founding members of the organization who were native Southerners, but I found no evidence they had ever been Klansmen. A few had served in the Confederate Army.”

The online controversy around Kemper

Regarding Kemper, O’Shea tweeted Monday, “we all love ending memorial day weekend with pitchforks and fire, but Ellie Kemper was like 17 when she was the VP Queen—the larger point is that the Veiled Prophets rich white fathers keep this ball going without telling their daughters what they’re getting into.”

This has not stopped many Twitter users from expressing certainty that Kemper is a “KKK princess”: “Ellie Kemper was brought up in a wealthy family apart of an elite society,” said one. “She was attending Princeton University at the time she has crowned KKK princess at 19. I’m 100% sure she was well aware of the history of the Veiled Prophet Ball.”

Many others took the characterization to be true: “i mean….. ellie kemper was apparently crowned in a legit kkk beauty pageant so…. people obviously change, so it doesn’t mean she’s a terrible person *now* but…. might benefit from offering some kinda explanation of what’s changed since then,” said one.

Spencer, whose book is highly critical of VP, didn’t understand the current social media controversy fueled in part by truncated descriptions from his detailed writings.

“I cannot figure out for the life of me what the point is of going after some actress for something she did 20 years ago when she was 19,” he said. “I’m not going to defend the organization; it has a lot of problems. It just baffles me to think that you should make a big deal about someone being in a debutante ball.”

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