Black History Month: Discovering and Uncovering

February is Black History Month, an important time for spotlighting what has been forgotten or watered down in too many history books. In this guest post by Lyndsey Ellis, she writes about her experience researching details for the plot and characters in her debut novel, Bone Broth (Hidden Timber Books, 2021).

Notes on Bone Broth in Connection
to the Controversial Veiled Prophet
in St. Louis

By Lyndsey Ellis

I started researching the Veiled Prophet Ball in St. Louis, and the controversy surrounding it, long before I decided to write about it. From day one, the experience was incredibly immersive. One that cut deeply, but also cleansed and fortified.

It happened by accident. I was home from California visiting during the holidays in 2012. These annual trips usually involved spending time at the local research library, gathering information on the historical backdrop for my novel, Bone Broth. At the time, I was still chewing on the main character’s make-up and background. I knew Justine was a guarded woman with a taboo past that she kept hidden. But, I wasn’t 100% clear on how that would manifest in the book.

But I did know that I’d cultivated a passion for grassroots activism. During time spent in California, I enjoyed learning about ways communities came together in protest, and I longed to learn about the activism birthed in St. Louis. Other cities—Selma, Oakland, Memphis, Chicago—were labeled civil rights hot spots because of their deep involvement in progressive movements that took a stand against racism. How did the “Gateway To The West” fit in? What voice did my hometown have against a system that routinely discriminated against Blacks? Was it loud enough? Had it sparked change?

All these questions were with me when I stumbled on the Veiled Prophet and the big “unveiling” incident. The male-only organization was formed in 1870’s during St. Louis’s post-Civil War economic decline. The goal was to re-establish the city as a prominent manufacturing spot by drawing national attention to events that emulated the charm of New Orleans’ Mardis Gras. 

One affair was the organization’s Veiled Prophet Ball, a ceremony that showcased St. Louis’s upper class community. Every year, a hooded Prophet (the similarities to the appearance of a KKK clansman is mindboggling) was crowned at the gathering, along with a Queen of Love and Beauty. The latter was selected among several participating debutantes who were the daughters of the city’s leading executives, financiers, and businessmen.

At first glance, the Ball (and its corresponding parade) seemed like a harmless—although pretentious—attempt to celebrate the civic ventures of St. Louis’s social elites. But looking closer, I found that the Ball had a controversial history of discriminating against minorities, particularly poor Blacks. As told in several accounts, the main objective was to maintain class order. To remind the working class who was on top and in charge.

The discovery shocked and angered me. I couldn’t believe I’d never known much about this history while, as a St. Louis native, it had been right under my nose. Until then, I’d only had an inkling about the Veiled Prophet and heard whispers about its unsettling origins from my mother, a retired vocal music teacher, whose students performed at the VP Fair every Fourth of July weekend in downtown St. Louis. I didn’t make the connection that ‘VP’ stood for Veiled Prophet until the fact-finding that day in the research center – a huge ‘Ah-Ha!’ moment. I couldn’t understand why more on this wretched spectacle hadn’t been shared by elders, or local pillars, or peers. And, if I didn’t know about it, how many countless others in my community missed this vital information?

Fast forward to 2018. I’d just moved back to my hometown. During a two-month writing residency used to finish Bone Broth, I worked to get my hands on everything else I could find out on the Veiled Prophet, its origins, and how it looked in recent times. The racial injustice surrounding it, I learned, made national headlines after several civil rights protests in the 1970’s. The 1972 demonstration and “unveiling” of Prophet is loosely conveyed in Bone Broth as one of Justine’s hidden affairs in her earlier years. Her grown children discover her participation in one of the city’s most outrageous moments and learn their mother’s involvement was her response to her family’s displacement after the razing of the Pruitt Igoe Housing Project in that same year. It may seem odd that Justine wouldn’t want her background to be public knowledge, especially since it appeared to be a noble move, but it’s worth mentioning that her decision to remain quiet about her past was a way of reconciling why elders in the community may have largely stayed quiet about these series of events during this time.

Writing about the “unveiling” incident required a deeper dive into research. I sat for long hours—during my residency, at home, in libraries—fact-finding and organizing important dates and locations. I searched for and interviewed key players who had a hand in publicly addressing the organization’s sketchy routine. I wrote and re-wrote scenes in the novel.

Never in my wildest dreams did I expect the controversy around the Veiled Prophet—still very much concealed to both St. Louisans and the rest of the country—to catapult into the public eye. During the same month that Bone Broth was released in June 2021, news broke that one of Hollywood’s starlets, Ellie Kemper, had once been crowned the Queen of Love and Beauty in the late 1990’s. Kemper’s family had ties to the Veiled Prophet organization and her involvement didn’t put her in the best light.

Once again, St. Louis was at the forefront of unjust practices in the country (2021 marked the 7th anniversary of the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson). Scabs from a wound in the heart of America were being ripped off to expose the truth. The timing was eerie and remains something that awes me nearly every time I have the opportunity to discuss Bone Broth with readers at events or book club meetings. What’s not surprising is that even after the internet exploded over Ellie Kemper’s history with one of the most contentious establishments in the Midwest, the organization still appeared in St. Louis’s Fourth of July celebration. No Veiled Prophet mascot was present in an effort to quiet dissenters, but the bold ridiculousness of it still carried on. I can only hope that St. Louisans and the rest of America will one day have the courage to put an end to century-old practices, like the Veiled Prophet Ball and parade, that continue to preserve inequities that plague our society. These types of displays openly spit in the face of democracy by covering up discrimination against Blacks and the working class, and by still refusing to admit women as members.

JOIN LYNDSEY ELLIS in March when she teaches “Exploring Place and History Within Narrative” as part of our 2022 Workshops for Writers series, The Work Behind the Work. In her 90-minute workshop, you’ll learn how to create a strong sense of place and history in your story.

Looking for other books that tell of Black History and Experience? Here are just a few.

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