The Uneasy Past of the Veiled Prophet Organization: Part II The story of St. Louis’s celebration of exoticism and privilege.

Missourians Organized for Reform and Empowerment (MORE) during a 2015 "Unveil the Profit" protest connecting St. Louis's power brokers to the legacy of the Veiled Prophet Organization. (Courtesy: Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment Facebook page.)

Last month, I detailed the uneasy past of the Veiled Prophet Organization, a 140-year-old St. Louis organization whose founders claimed to have created it to celebrate the city, but whose founding and traditions suggest that founders may have wanted a way to protect their power within the city. Critics of the organization have charged the Veiled Prophet Organization (VPO) with maintaining power within St. Louis through intersecting race, class, and gender-based ideologies, in which power was nearly always meant for white, upper-class men (the race of its membership has changed somewhat since the 1980s, but the gender dynamics remain almost exactly the same). As historian Thomas Spencer argues, this made the VPO an organization of its time—it did not appear to have been any more or less racist than other fraternal organizations. Like others, the VPO did initiate a few minority members, including foreign-born immigrants and a handful of Jewish members (black members were only admitted beginning in 1979). Nevertheless, nearly a century of protests by racial activists demonstrate that for many St. Louisans, the VPO’s uneasy relationship with race, in particular, has left it vulnerable to criticism. In this essay, I focus on the relationship between the VPO and race, paying particular attention to the ways in which whiteness and power are frequently conflated in the organization’s history.

The most prominent (i.e. the most documented) race-based protests of the VPO include the following six moments in the VP organization’s history:[1]

 

1) Spencer notes that some middle-class black St. Louisans showed an interest in the Veiled Prophet parade; the route was mapped on the front page of the St. Louis Argus, a black newspaper, throughout the early 1900s. According to Spencer, “members of the black middle class wanted a bigger role in the celebration,” and eventually created their own celebrations closely mimicking those of the VP. In the late 1910s and throughout the 1920s, there were “African (or Colored) Veiled Prophet Balls,” at which an African Veiled Prophet queen was selected, and later reported by the Argus.

 

2) In 1963, the VPO moved the parade and ball to the weekend. The parade and ball took place downtown, and by the 1960s white St. Louisans began to move to the suburbs of St. Louis to maintain all-white neighborhoods; such moves were encouraged by realtors and mortgage lenders through redlining. The VPO’s shift to the weekend likely made it easier for its suburban members to continue to celebrate the city of St. Louis while simultaneously participating in white flight.

 

3) The most active period of protests against the VPO was during the late Civil Rights Era. From 1965 to 1984, the Action Committee to Improve Opportunities for Negroes (ACTION) protested at all Veiled Prophet events. ACTION’s primary goal was economic justice through jobs for minorities. An integrated group, ACTION maintained black leadership and frequently used white members to gain access to public spaces otherwise off-limits to blacks—including the Veiled Prophet Ball. Founder Percy Green believed in direct-action protest, that is, confrontation with specific groups for specific goals. The group frequently protested large corporations and churches, and in protesting VP events, members believed they could hit multiple corporations at once.

 

Most protests disrupting the parade involved ACTION members lying down in front of parade floats while others distributed leaflets until the police arrested those involved. Occasionally, members chained themselves to floats, which held up the parade long enough for leaflets to be distributed. The ball was frequently picketed with signs such as “VEILED PROFIT$” or “VP=KKK.”

Most protests disrupting the parade involved the Action Committee to Improve Opportunities for Negroes (ACTION) members lying down in front of parade floats while others distributed leaflets until the police arrested those involved.

ACTION also held a parody ball, a Black Veiled Prophet ball. Instead of a white Queen of Love and Beauty, a black Queen of Human Justice was crowned. ACTION members were explicit: They did not want to be part of the Veiled Prophet organization, nor did they care to have a black woman crowned as a Queen of Love and Beauty. Their event was entirely meant to mock the white VP.

ACTION managed to unveil a prophet at the 1972 ball. Three white women obtained balcony tickets. As one woman shouted “Down with the VP!” another swung down from the balcony on a cable to the stage (the fall crushed three of her ribs). She told an official that she had fallen, and managed to sneak on stage, standing right next to the seated Veiled Prophet. She pulled the veil from his face, and then was quickly rushed offstage by the Bengal Lancers, the VP’s protective guard. The VP, a Monsanto executive vice president, put his crown and veil back on, and the ball proceeded as usual.

As a result of the late 1960s and early 1970s protests, the VPO did make several changes: the VP Queen and her maids were no longer featured in the parade after 1967 (members feared for their daughters’ safety); the parade route avoided African-American neighborhoods, moving from downtown to the Central West End; the parade was moved to the daytime, not the evening as it had been historically; the Veiled Prophet was not part of the parade between 1969-1973; women and children were placed on parade floats (in addition to giving the image of inclusivity, VP members believed their presence would prevent objects being thrown at floats); and the ball moved to the Christmas season to dissociate it from the parade (thus cementing the idea that though the parade might be meant for all St. Louisans—or at the very least, all white St. Louisans—the ball was certainly not).

One of the major successes garnered by ACTION occurred in 1973, when the group filed a class-action suit against the VP ball’s rental of Kiel Auditorium, a publicly funded building. Rather than go to court, the VP organization moved the ball from Kiel Auditorium to the Chase Park Plaza Hotel, a private facility (Harold Koplar, the hotel’s owner, had already named the biggest ballroom in the hotel the “Khorassan Ballroom,” perhaps anticipating that the event could be held there).

In 1976 ACTION held a “cry-in,” in which “members ran across the stage spraying tear gas into the air,” aimed away from peoples’ eyes (Spencer 131). However, when grabbed by security guards, the protesters’ tear gas was pointed directly at audience members’ eyes. Some ACTION members point to this protest as having gone one step too far, and essentially lost ACTION any sympathy it may have garnered. The group continued to protest until it disbanded in 1984.

In 1979, the VP admitted three black doctors—its first black members. VP members insist that black members were admitted in 1979 because they had finally earned their place among the organization’s elite, primarily white, businessmen. Such a response clearly ignored the racist policies that had denied black membership for over a century—racist policies instituted and enforced by VP members in their own companies, as well as across St. Louis in their positions on major boards, their relationships with police, and their relationships with members of the media.

In 1976 ACTION held a “cry-in,” in which “members ran across the stage spraying tear gas into the air,” aimed away from peoples’ eyes. However, when grabbed by security guards, the protesters’ tear gas was pointed directly at audience members’ eyes. Some ACTION members point to this protest as having gone one step too far, and essentially lost ACTION any sympathy it may have garnered.

4) In 1987, following a series of racially-charged struggles in St. Louis in the 1980s, VP members pressed the St. Louis police board to close the Eads Bridge. This effectively closed downtown St. Louis to pedestrian traffic coming from East St. Louis, which was (and remains) a predominantly African-American community. The reasoning cited for the bridge closure was to prevent “East Side street gangs” from “coming across the bridge to rob and mug” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 5 July 1987). The East St. Louis NAACP filed a complaint, arguing that closing the bridge was racial discrimination, and prevented peoples’ right to travel. According to Spencer, this incident told black St. Louisans “that members of the organization believed in an old stereotype: that blacks were responsible for most of the petty crimes in the city” (Spencer 148). Further, Spencer argues, this move by the VPO (which was carried out by the police board) fanned black St. Louisans’ belief that the VP Fair was not meant for black people.

 

5) The VP Fair, which began in 1982, never carried the full name of the Veiled Prophet, and many fairgoers did not know the origin or meaning of “VP.” Regardless, the VP Fair changed its name to Fair St. Louis in 1995. While some VP members claim the name change was made to make it easier to find corporate sponsors, others admit that the name change came as a result of struggles with the St. Louis black community.

 

6) More protests of the VPO came following the shooting of Michael Brown on August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri. These included a Twitter campaign, #unveiltheprofit, which was connected with an organization called Power Behind the Police. Missourians Organized for Reform and Empowerment (MORE) compiled information on St. Louis’s 1%, and linked that information to the VP organization. MORE sponsored a weeklong protest entitled “Unveil the Profit” around July 4, 2015. They traveled to the homes and businesses of seven of St. Louis’s wealthiest businessmen with portraits and cakes decorated to highlight St. Louis’s “history of injustice and corporate control” (meant to counter the 250th birthday cakes that appeared around St. Louis that year). According to Molly Gott, an organizer with MORE and a research coordinator for the Power Behind the Police, the purpose of 2015 protests against the VPO were meant to expose the “power behind the police”: “Police don’t really have the power—the 1% does … most people realized that the movement was not just about police accountability; it was also about ending structural racism and economic inequality and creating a future in which Black Lives Matter.” When then-St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson was pictured at the December 2015 VP Ball, activists pounced on the explicit connection between the police force and economic control. The image further recalled the first VP Ball in 1878, in which it was revealed that the Veiled Prophet was portrayed by then-St. Louis Police Commissioner John G. Priest, who had just one year prior violently ended a rail worker’s strike (resulting in the deaths of 18 strikers).

 

For more than a century, the VPO has faced race-based protests; however, during all of that time, the organization has been able to claim innocence against racism based on historical context: they made no explicitly racist comments in public, and their exclusionary practices were the same as other fraternal organizations. That they only began to include black members in 1979 is similar to other exclusive groups (consider the Augusta Golf Club, which only began to allow black members in 1990). Regardless, the connection between the VPO and racist practices remains. As MORE activist Molly Gott explains, “For people (especially black people) in St. Louis, the VP has enormous symbolic value. People equate the ‘veiled profit’ wearing a white sheet with the KKK. It represents the power of the ruling class of St. Louis.” Though activists have targeted the VPO for its race, the arguments made against the organization are rooted in the intersection of race and class. Indeed, though the VPO may have been no more racist than other predominantly white fraternal organizations throughout the 20th century, the VP differed in its relationship with middle- and working-class men—that is, it failed to create relationships between men of varying social classes.

More protests of the VPO came following the shooting of Michael Brown on August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri. These included a Twitter campaign, #unveiltheprofit, which was connected with an organization called Power Behind the Police.

Throughout history, the VPO frequently conflated wealth, success, and moral good—a relationship of values that have traditionally been more difficult to access for people of color and the poor around the country. Wealth and success, and therefore a particular version of moral good, were made inaccessible by a system of exclusionary policies—including policies on housing, segregation, education, voting systems, mandatory sentences, to name but a few—that carried out a system that implicitly and explicitly privileged whiteness—a system that in many respects was maintained, at least in part, by members of the VPO. As many writers have documented, such exclusionary policies were particularly prevalent in St. Louis, where racially restrictive housing covenants, mortgage lenders who refused to offer mortgages to redlined districts, and a history of racially discriminatory policing created St. Louis’s current system of de facto segregation.[2]

The VPO made an organizational shift in 2002 by launching the Community Service Initiative (CSI). The CSI was founded as a way for the VPO to give back to the St. Louis community, and since its formation, the VPO has been involved in a number of outreach projects across St. Louis: past projects have included charity fashion shows, visiting children in area hospitals, building an outdoor learning center and playground at the Biome School, installing a playground for Zion Lutheran Church in Ferguson, building the staircase connecting the Gateway Arch with the riverfront, and gathering supplies to support those devastated by Hurricane Sandy. These are indeed worthy projects that leave at least some St. Louis residents debating if such actions might offload the baggage of the past. It may never be possible to truly understand whether the shift to a philanthropy-based identity was predicated on protests and the negative reception the organization received from certain factions of St. Louis. I do, however, wonder if the 2016 and 2017 philanthropic collaborations between the Royal Vagabonds, an all-black organization founded in the racially-segregated 1930s, and the VPO were at least in part a reaction to the #unveiltheprofit campaign.

The current political moment—a moment in which Confederate monuments and flags are questioned in cities across the country, in which colleges and universities debate what freedom of speech on college campuses means, and in which the president has been accused of having made many racist statements—demands a reckoning with histories like that of the VPO. Doing so means looking beyond the symbolic and anachronistic references to the KKK and questioning why some black St. Louisans have felt excluded from and have actively protested the organization for over a century.

To reckon with this vestige of St. Louis history in both past and present, it is necessary to move beyond the symbolic racism of the initial Ku Klux Klan-styled image (detailed in last month’s essay) to understand the tangible effects of racism hidden by the veil of the VP. As Carol E. Henderson writes in White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, “The whittling down of racism to sheet-wearing goons allowed a cloud of racial innocence to cover many whites who, although ‘resentful of black progress’ and determined to ensure that racial inequality remained untouched, could see and project themselves as the ‘kind of upstanding white citizen[s]’ who were ‘positively outraged at the tactics of the Ku Klux Klan’” (100).

It may never be possible to truly understand whether the shift to a philanthropy-based identity was predicated on protests and the negative reception the organization received from certain factions of St. Louis. I do, however, wonder if the 2016 and 2017 philanthropic collaborations between the Royal Vagabonds, an all-black organization founded in the racially-segregated 1930s, and the VPO were at least in part a reaction to the #unveiltheprofit campaign.

Those who have protested the VPO were not protesting what the VP wore or the basis of his creation myth: early 20th-century black St. Louisans protested their exclusion from being considered prominent and successful men (and women) whose goal was to take care of St. Louis; ACTION protested the VPO in the Civil Rights era, not against a racist symbol, but against a racist organization replete with ties to corporations that had the power to enact economic justice by hiring black workers, but did not; and MORE recently demonstrated the connections between members of the VPO and the police in order to protest legacies of structural racism and economic inequality that resulted in racially biased policing. For MORE and ACTION, the VPO offered a place for St. Louis’s most prominent and powerful citizens to forge important connections that allowed them to maintain their influence in a still-segregated city.

But despite this past, the VPO remains virtually unknown—it publicizes its volunteer work prominently and maintains the VP Parade, but few observers, even those who are lifelong St. Louisans, know the parade’s origins, what the VP ball is, or connect Fair St. Louis to the VP organization at all. In fact, while the VP organization’s website links to the Fair St. Louis website, there is no link on the Fair St. Louis website back to the VP organization—and the history of VP members instituting the Fair has been nearly eliminated from the Fair’s history. As of last year, the VP Parade quietly shifted its marketing, and is now billed as “America’s Birthday Parade.” But while past protesters hoped to drive the VPO and its celebrations into hiding (or eliminate it entirely), doing so has only created a thicker veil around the organization and its membership. The VPO’s success now lies in its ability to remain invisible, hiding its still nearly all-white supremacy in the St. Louis region through good deeds.

 

•  •  •

 

“To be born white in this country is to be born to an inheritance of privileges, to hold in your hands the keys that open before you the doors of every occupation, advantage, opportunity, and achievement.”

—Frances E.W. Harper

 

The ability to claim ignorance or innocence of the past remains one of the essential privileges of whiteness: as George Lipsitz explains, even if white people do not endorse past wrongdoings, and even if some black people embrace and profit from white privilege, whites still overwhelmingly benefit from legacies of explicit privilege.[3] One does not have to acknowledge privilege to benefit from it. Lipsitz further argues that “White Americans are encouraged to invest in whiteness, to remain true to an identity that provides them with resources, power, and opportunity.”[4] Whiteness scholar Ruth Frankenberg explains that the seeming invisibility of whiteness is a “white delusion,” because while whites can claim ignorance, many people of color witness such privileges daily.[5] Whiteness is not invisible, nor is it unmarked—it simply seems that way to many white people because many of us are surrounded by places, institutions, policies, and media created by and nearly exclusively for whites. We may refer to “black culture” or “Puerto Rican culture” or any number of “Other” cultures as distinct from “Our” culture precisely because mainstream culture is implicitly marked “white.”

As I conclude this essay, the second of a two part series on St. Louis’s Veiled Prophet Organization, I must note that there are a number of issues I have not discussed that are interesting, complicated, and important: from the VP’s exoticist themes (the vaguely Eastern, possibly “Oriental” artifacts and costumes and the Bengals Lancers, the personal guard of the VP who dress in false mustaches, beards, and turbans to appear vaguely Middle Eastern), to the outdated gender dynamics (historically, the VP ball was a cotillion in which fathers present their daughters to society as marriage-ready, when another man their age selects one as the Queen of Love and Beauty), including the policing of women’s sexuality and privileging of virginity by a group of older men (one queen was later discovered to have been married before she had been crowned; she was stripped of her crown). And while the VPO now states that the VP Ball is a recognition of the charity work completed by VP member’s daughters, the pageantry, presentation, and name remain, which begs the question: How much has actually changed about the gendered connotations of this ball? But for now I leave the VPO, wondering how groups like this can change, and indeed, if, beyond increased emphasis on volunteer work (which, let us remember, is a commodity for young white women hoping to attend Ivy League schools or hoping to receive scholarships to college), its membership can ever recognize the change some St. Louisans want from the organization.

For some, whiteness is slowly becoming visible, and the clearest symbols of white supremacy—Confederate monuments and flags—are being reconsidered across the country. However, while the VPO has made changes throughout its history that seem to counter race-based protests, its own prominent investments in whiteness (the access to exclusive connections, the use of public spaces, and its partnership with law enforcement, particularly in the creation of racially discriminatory ordinances), and the impact they have or may have had across St. Louis’s history remain one of the city’s most public secrets. Compared to removing a Confederate monument (which in St. Louis took two years and a lawsuit), revealing the connections of white privilege that span a century and a city will be considerably more complicated.

[1] The first five are detailed in Spencer’s The St. Louis Veiled Prophet Celebration: Power on Parade, 1877-1995 (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri), 2000.

[2] For more on St. Louis’s history of racism with regard to real estate practices, see: Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Racist Housing Policies that Built Ferguson,” The Atlantic 17 October, 2014: https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/10/the-racist-housing-policies-that-built-ferguson/381595/ ; Jeannette Cooperman, “St. Louis: A City Divided,” Aljazeera American 18 August, 2014: http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/8/18/st-louis-segregation.html ; John Eligon, “Missouri Reports Wide Racial Disparity in Traffic Stops,” The New York Times 1 June 2015: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/02/us/big-disparity-for-blacks-pulled-over-in-missouri.html ; Aimee VonBokel, “Real estate and racism in St. Louis,” The St. Louis American 23 Feb., 2017: http://www.stlamerican.com/news/columnists/guest_columnists/real-estate-and-racism-in-st-louis/article_a32603cc-f97f-11e6-a56f-5ba0c8109f60.html

[3] George Lipsitz, How Racism Takes Place (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2011), 28.

[4] George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit From Identity Politics (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2006), xvii.

[5] Ruth Frankenberg, “The Mirage of an Unmarked Whiteness,”The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness, ed. Birgit Brander Rasmussen et. al. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), 73.

 

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