Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was a hit Netflix comedy about a girl who escaped from a cult and pretended like it never happened.
The series thrust The Office alum Ellie Kemper into the spotlight, as she was playing the titular character.
On Monday, the actress was trending on Twitter in the worst way imaginable.
When she was 19, she won what many characterized as a “KKK beauty pageant.” What is going on?
In 1999, Ellie Kemper was 19 years old.
At that time, she was named queen of the Veiled Prophet Ball.
The ball was thrown by a local organization in her native St. Louis.
The Veiled Prophet sounds like a cult as creepy as the one depicted on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
Little snippets about it began to filter out onto Twitter.
The organization dates back to two centuries ago … and has an ugly history.
Like so many institutions in our country, the St. Louis organization has a history of racism and discrimination.
However, The Veiled Prophet’s origin story is explicitly tied to racism in ways that make it stand out.
In the second half of the 1800s, it was founded by wealthy white reactionaries who opposed racial comraderie between Black and white workers in St. Louis.
As one can imagine, news of a well known actress winning a creepy title from a creepily named organization raised eyebrows.
But the bits of information about that organization, which forbade Black members for about a century, were worse.
Ellie Kemper was quickly characterized as a “KKK beauty queen” all across Twitter.
However, despite the organization’s alarming history, there is some nuance to all of this.
It’s not exactly the case that she showed up to be crowned “most white” at a white supremacist beauty pageant.
But people creeped out by the organization and her participation in the ball aren’t wrong, either.
The Veiled Prophet Organization has hosted a debutante ball since 1878.
In particular, the ball is known to crown its queens from “historic St. Louis families.”
And for the record, Kemper absolutely qualifies.
Ellie Kemper is the scion of one of Missouri’s wealthiest families.
Her father is David Woods Kemper, who is the chairmand and CEO of Commerce Bancshares.
And her great-great-grandfather was William Thornton Kemper Sr., a railroad magnate.
So, in 1878, Charles Slayback wanted to form a secret society inspirted by Poet Thomas Moore and by Mardi Gras.
Slayback was a Confederate calvalryman who survived his treasonous war and became a grain executive.
He called a meeting of business leaders and influential civic leaders in St. Louis to discuss his dream.
Together, these elite weirdos created a mythical character, named the Veiled Prophet of Khorassan.
This fictional character was a mystic traveler who chose St. Louis as his base of operations.
Aspects of his story are anonymously portrayed at Veiled Prophet balls, where a Queen of Love and Beauty is alsos elected.
As for the actual purpose of the organization, these balls were intended to draw attention to St. Louis.
The city was in competition with Chicago, a city in a state of fast-paced growth at the time.
But there was also a growing level of cooperation between Black and white workers.
In the aftermath of the railroad strike in 1877, labor issues were major issues.
Reportedly, part of the purpose of the Veiled Prophet was to “reinforce” the values held by these St. Louis elites.
But those who found themselves thinking of the KKK were not alone.
The original portrayals of the Veiled Prophet did bear a striking resemblance to the hoods worn by the KKK.
However, it would be decades until the KKK adopted that style of garb.
So the resemblance was not intentional … but controversy endured.
In the 1970s, there were concerned efforts for the Veiled Prophet organization to be disbanded.
It was, at that time, still actively discriminating until 1979.
Only then did the organization allow Black members to join — just one year before Ellie Kemper was born.
These days, the Veiled Prophet organization has changed the name — throwing the Fair Saint Louis.
But the balls continue, only interrupted in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
History is weird and complicated and riddled with racism.