Behind the Veil

A new book rips the shroud off St. Louis' premier social organization

Jun 28, 2000 at 4:00 am
Accompanying the announcement for the first Veiled Prophet Parade in the Missouri Republican of Oct. 6, 1878, is an artist's rendering of what would become a lasting iconic figure in St. Louis. He stands in a white sheet and a white pointed hat; in one hand he brandishes a pistol, in the other a shotgun, with yet another shotgun leaning nearby at the ready. To anyone seeing the image today, and to anyone who happened to pick up the paper that fall day in 1878, the Veiled Prophet is clearly being associated with another iconic figure of the time: the Klansman. The newspaper description of the figure made the threat more pronounced: "It will be readily observed from the accoutrements (the weapons) of the Prophet that the procession is not likely to be stopped by street cars or anything else."

The year before, another sort of parade filled St. Louis streets when striking railroad workers participated in what historian Thomas Spencer refers to as "the most successful general strike in the nation's history." In Spencer's assessment, to be found in his fascinating book The St. Louis Veiled Prophet Celebration: Power on Parade 1877-1995, the first Veiled Prophet Parade, and the creation of the Veiled Prophet organization, was a battle for the streets, with the St. Louis elite taking the public stage back from the working class. Although later histories attempted to depict the parade as a civic balm applied by the "city fathers" a year after the hostile strike, the white sheet of the Klansman/Prophet proves otherwise. Spencer, an assistant professor of history and philosophy at Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville, notes that the rail strike involved many African-American workers. In a post-Reconstruction Southern city, he says, he doesn't see how the KKK reference could have been more blatant: "That is a Klan member, and he's armed."

Today's VP Parade -- and Fair St. Louis, which dropped any reference to the Veiled Prophet in 1995 -- is a relatively benign affair in comparison to its origins. "Admittedly," says Spencer, "the Veiled Prophet Parade now is something written for children." But as the title of Spencer's book suggests, the Veiled Prophet celebration has always been more than entertainment. With its parade and exclusive ball, the Veiled Prophet organization has made an annual display of power and privilege, expressing class -- and until very recently -- racial control (as late as 1987, the VP Fair organizers closed the Eads Bridge to prevent "East Side street gangs" from "coming across the bridge to rob and mug"). The city's elite has coveted a membership in the Veiled Prophet organization since the 19th century -- bankers, judges, business leaders have always been found there, as are corporate executives and members of Civic Progress today. Spencer says that what he found most surprising in his research was the affirmation of the adage "The more things change, the more they stay the same." "And I'm an historian," he notes. "I talk about change. That is something that I trace in every class I teach: 'Look at these major changes.' But at the same time, a historian has to realize that part of what you ought to say is 'Look at how many things don't.' Look at the constants here: the praise of capitalism, the worshiping of wealth, racial positions that are kept static."

The Veiled Prophet celebration began, in part, as a kind of harvest festival, in conjunction with the St. Louis Agricultural and Mechanical Fair. Fewer farmers had been using St. Louis as a trading center -- the city had already begun its long decline, losing commerce to Chicago -- and the parade was to serve as an entertainment hook. Spencer argues, however, in the context of 19th-century popular culture, a parade was much more than floats -- it was a vehicle through which the power elite sought to shape "the values of their working-class audience." The Veiled Prophet was presented as a mystical, omnipotent, all-knowing figure -- one of the city fathers, naturally -- whose identity was never divulged (only two have ever been known -- the very first, the city's police commissioner, and a Monsanto executive vice president, Tom K. Smith, who was unmasked as part of a guerilla protest by the civil-rights group ACTION in 1972). The central story of each parade, at least in its early years, was one of progress. "History," Spencer writes of the concept as it was applied by the members of the Veiled Prophet, "was to document the deeds of great men like themselves -- who had led the nation and St. Louis in the advancements of civilization. Through their portrayal of the world, American, and St. Louis history in the Veiled Prophet parades, these elites took credit for making St. Louis the successful place they believed it was -- the place, they hoped, that would eventually become the 'Future Great City of the World.'"

With the rabble at the curb rather than in the street, they were treated to edifying spectacles. The 1892 parade, for example, told "The History of Louisiana," which included floats entitled "LaSalle taking Possession of the Louisiana Territory," "Founding the City of St. Louis," "Lieutenant Governors of Upper Louisiana," "First Missouri State Officials" and, the final float, "Native Missourian Inaugurated President." Spencer notes that the "supreme irony" of the city fathers' boosterism and lesson of economic and political progress is that these were the very leaders who "by many urban historians ... would be blamed for St. Louis' failure to become a major regional power in the midwest, much less the 'Future Great City of the World.'"

In this way, in Spencer's view, the Veiled Prophet organization provides another example of a St. Louis constant, what during the Gilded Age was referred to as "the Big Cinch."

"I would make the argument that one of the roles that organization plays is to keep these people on top with business contacts," Spencer says. "What's so fascinating is they use those business contacts to put little Johnny into a corporate job, and by the 1950s and 1960s, all the corporate CEOs in St. Louis had the same names as the major business leaders did in the 1880s. If you know much about St. Louis history, when is it the corporations really started going into the Dumpster? It was under the leadership of these folks. So it sort of happens twice, if you want to make the argument. Yeah, it begins its decline of being a central and important city in the 19th century, but you can also see it again when this same group of people (is in charge in the 20th). Now, I don't know what this says about St. Louis leadership. You can guess the obvious things that immediately come to mind."

St. Louis isn't entirely a place "where Americans cheer the rich," as a U.S. News & World Report cover story about the city headlined in 1991. Mischievous boys delivered a rain of peas from pea-shooters onto the floats in the 1930s, and heavier projectiles kept the privileged concealed under padding, observing the procession from slits throughout much of the parade's history. Still, the Veiled Prophet Ball, with the crowning of a queen and a procession of maids (all daughters of the local aristocracy), elicited voyeuristic fascination for those excluded from the festivities. The event was televised well into the 1960s and was always one of the highest-rated local programs.

The 1960s also marks the time when the Veiled Prophet organization was forced to change its exclusionary ways. ACTION (Action Committee to Improve Opportunities for Negroes), with a goal of social and economic justice for African-Americans in a predominantly racist city, was led by Percy Green, a genius at the "theater of confrontation." By this time, the Veiled Prophet Parade had diminished in its significance. Spencer observes that with television the street was no longer the predominant public stage. Parade themes focused on subjects such as the world of Disney rather than the history of Louisiana. The ball, however, had evolved into the most important event for the St. Louis elite and thus became ACTION's favorite target. Barbara Torrence, a former ACTION member, told Spencer, "You know the old joke about the elephant -- first you got to get his attention. To get his attention, you whack him where it hurts -- after you've tried everything else." The place where the St. Louis elite hurt most was the Veiled Prophet Ball.

Spencer provides a detailed narrative of the Veiled Prophet's unveiling in 1972, a caper more suspenseful than anything in the Mission: Impossible flicks. By the 1980s, the ball had moved out of Kiel Auditorium -- so it could no longer be criticized for being subsidized with taxpayer money -- and the Veiled Prophet organization began integrating, although at first with only token African-American inclusion. The harvest festival became a Fourth of July event known as the VP Fair. Spencer finds it alarming how quickly, at least among whites, the initials VP allowed for a collective forgetting. He found that in informal polls by newspaper reporters, by the late '80s most people didn't know what "VP" stood for. "It's amazing to me. It's always there as initials, but it was such a conscious effort to submerge this past by using this very simple trick."

In 1995, the VP Fair became Fair St. Louis. In 1996, Horace Wilkins, an African-American executive at Southwestern Bell, became chairman of the fair committee. Some distance has been covered from the Veiled Prophet's more ignominious roots. Spencer finds that what is most unique about the Veiled Prophet celebration, and organization, is that it has lasted so long. Other celebrations in Kansas City, Omaha and Memphis began in the 1890s but lasted only a decade. In St. Louis, he says, "It holds on, and people seem interested in it. A lot of it is that St. Louis leaders really got what they wanted out of this organization. Whether it was business ties or what, they got it." And still do.

Thomas Spencer signs copies of The St. Louis Veiled Prophet Celebration: Power on Parade 1877-1995 at Borders Books & Music-Creve Coeur, 7 p.m. Thursday, June 29.