What the Hell Is This Racist Debutante Parade in St. Louis?

Illustration for article titled What the Hell Is This Racist Debutante Parade in St. Louis?
Screenshot: Veiled Prophet Organization

When I think of debutantes I think mainly of Blair Waldorf, a character from the very important teen drama Gossip Girl, who existed in the world of rich upper-class white people who for some reason want to present their 16-year-old daughters to the masses to, I assume, begin the mating process. But now when I think of debutantes I will only think about this cursed tweet with images from something called the Veiled Prophet Parade and Ball, held in St. Louis.

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The images of the parade and ball depict young girls in white dresses reminiscent of wedding gowns, standing beside a robed figure in a veil which really looks like papal cosplay gone wrong. For some reason, the girls are also wearing feathers on their heads, which, whatever floats your boat sweetie. The natural questions here are why and also what the fuck?

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According to the St. Louis Post Dispatch, the Veiled Prophet parade was started in 1878 by Confederate officer Alonzo Slayback. “The prophet crowns a queen every year; their last names include Kemper, Busch, Danforth, Schnuck, Schlafly, Chouteau, Cabanne, Niedringhaus, Desloge and other historic St. Louis families,” the Dispatch reported in 2019. The event is now known as Fair St. Louis after a name change in 1992, but it is still hosted by the Veiled Prophet Organization. Fair St. Louis is now held over the 4th of July weekend, while the Veiled Prophet Ball is held in December.

In 2014, The Atlantic explained Slayback’s decision making in starting the original parade, which was intended to revitalize St. Louis in the post-civil war era:

[Slayback’s] intention was to form a secret society that would blend the pomp and ritual of a New Orleans Mardi Gras with the symbolism used by the Irish poet Thomas Moore. From Moore’s poetry, Slayback and the St. Louis elite created the myth of the Veiled Prophet of Khorassan, a mystic traveller who inexplicably decided to make St. Louis his base of operations.

A person would be chosen by a secret board of local elites to anonymously play the role of the Veiled Prophet. The Veiled Prophet would chose a Queen of Love and Beauty from among the elite ball attendees (of course, invitation list to be kept strictly confidential as well) with whom he would dance a “Royal Quadrille” before presenting her with an expensive keepsake such as a tiara or pearls.

Up until the ‘70s, the Veiled Prophet was a prominent member of the St. Louis elite, although most Prophets did not reveal their identity. According to The Atlantic, the only person who was willingly unveiled was a former police commissioner who was active in squashing a railroad strike during the 1800s. Another Prophet who was unveiled during a protest was former Monsanto executive Vice President, Tom K. Smith.

Due to the ongoing coronavirus Fair St. Louis has been cancelled for the 2020, there is no update on the Veiled Prophet Organization’s website as to the status of this year’s ball. Would be a shame if more people became aware of this elitist racist event and canceled it.

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DISCUSSION

The literal trappings, aesthetic, and general “window dressing” of the thing looks bizarre to my eyes—but given that I’m Cuban-American and was raised in Miami, which means I grew up going to quince parties, the whole underlying thing of “hey let’s play-act selling our kid at market” is not altogether that shocking to my sensibilities. As mother told me when I was a young lad, and expressed that this was all sort of creepy when you really think about, “well then, don’t ‘really think about it’ and just go out there and dance for your prima”.