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The End of the Veiled Prophet

After over a century, the unelected mascot of St. Louis is finally losing its place in public life.

In June 2021, the Internet blew up over the allegation that actress Ellie Kemper was a “KKK Queen.” A St. Louis Post-Dispatch article on the actress’s 1999 Queenship surfaced, and the cancellation torches came out. Once a year, the secretive Veiled Prophet Society crowns a teen debutante at its royal ball, and Kemper—heir to the Commerce Bank fortune—sat on a throne beside the Klan-ish king as his Queen of Love and Beauty. In the old days, queenship made you a local celebrity, and many daughters of the bourgeoisie considered it an honor to ride in the parade beside the white-gloved man in a veil. But Kemper apologized for her participation in an Instagram post: “Hi guys—when I was 19 years old, I decided to participate in a debutante ball in my hometown. The century-old organization that hosted the debutante ball had an unquestionably racist, sexist, and elitist past.”

When the VP is in the news, many ask a good question: “Is the Veiled Prophet really a Klansmen?” He’s eerie like a Klansmen; he wears robes like a Klansmen; he’s covering his face just like a Klansmen… yet he doesn’t have a steepled hat, and his robes are glittery, not white. Many outlets in June 2021 reported that “the Veiled Prophet organization did not have ties to the Ku Klux Klan,” or claimed, “It’s not a KKK thing.” This wildly misunderstands the history of the Klan in America. In fact, the first Veiled Prophet Parade was held to mark a violent anniversary: the crushing of the largest worker’s strike in St. Louis history—a movement that demanded fair wages, an eight-hour workday, and the end of child labor.

Trolley workers were big participants in the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, as it moved from East to West, from Philadelphia down the rail lines to Pittsburgh, and way out to hit St. Louis, washing through the streets, sending every brakeman, engineer, smithy, and barge worker into the streets for massive strike parades. For a week, Black and white workers shut the city down—no trains left the relay depot; no barge left the wharf. The St. Louis rich panicked. Worried that the strikers would shut off water to their mansion neighborhoods, they filled their sinks and bathtubs. In The Great Labor Uprising of 1877, Philip S. Foner argues that St. Louis workers became the de facto government for a short period, founding the first American commune government.