Updated July 8, 2015 to clarify the origin of the 1878 newspaper image and to correct the name of the accessories carried by the parade's horsemen.
Crowds decked out in red, white and blue were treated to a feast for the eyes and ears at the VP Parade Saturday morning in Forest Park. The parade had something for everyone, from marching bands and massive floating balloons to elaborate floats and superheroes driving four-wheelers and passing out candy. There were even Elvis impersonators and a Chinese dragon brigade.
But tucked in-between Elvis and a gardening float was a scene out of a bygone era. A troupe of men carrying ceremonial lances rode up first on horses decked out with the VP emblem. Then came two floats designed to look like chariots: the first pulled by a dragon, the second by a pair of swans. Enthroned on both chariots were women in elaborate gowns and men with their faces obscured by lacy veils.
“Why’s that person’s face covered?” asked Rachel Barriner of Bonne Terre, Mo. as the float passed her by.
“Because it’s the Veiled Prophet Parade,” replied her husband Jason Barriner, who had looked at the parade website before they came, but knew nothing else about the organization or the history of the parade.
An informal survey conducted by St. Louis Public Radio showed that the Barriners were not alone. Most people interviewed knew the parade was called the VP Parade. The majority even remembered that VP stood for Veiled Prophet. But hardly anyone knew anything else about the Veiled Prophet organization, which first held the VP parade in St. Louis in 1878.
Part of that is by design—it is after all still a mostly secret society that holds an annual invitation-only debutante ball. And the fourth of July weekend is now dominated by Fair St. Louis—a name adopted in 1992. Previously the event was called the Veiled Prophet Fair.
But when parade goers were shown an image of what the Missouri Republican claimed was the first Veiled Prophet, they were disturbed.
The newspaper image published on Oct. 6, 1878 shows an armed man with obscured features wearing a white sheet and a conical hat.
"It's creepy," said Anna Chychowski, a white St. Louis transplant originally from Memphis.
“Wow,” said Jackie Horton, an African American from St. Louis. “I don’t know what I think … I know when they first started they were so much more exclusive in terms of their organization and their club and they’ve grown a lot in a lot of ways since then.”
Horton said she thinks the Veiled Prophet organization has evolved since its founding. “I don’t know if it’s more publicity about the things that they do in the community, the money that’s raised, the visibility of diversity everywhere around,” she added, pointing to the mix of black and white parade participants walking a few feet away.
Steve Biegacki, an older white man who moved to the city about six years ago, said the image “taints” the parade for him “especially with everything that’s going on right now. I just think it’s insensitive. So maybe somebody should change the name.”
Before seeing the picture, Charlyne Hinkel said she thought the Veiled Prophet organization "used to be kind of snippity or uppity ... but now they're more giving back to the community and more welcoming."
But the image took Hinkel back and made her rethink.
"It doesn't look welcoming at all. It doesn't look like anything I want to go to. (It looks like) hate...almost demonic," she said.
"It looks like the Ku Klux Klan," said Ken Hinkel. "But it's much better now."
The couple said that the Veiled Prophet parade should be judged on its current state, not its past.
Protests Past and Present
During the week leading up to Fair St. Louis activists affiliated with Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment led a series of protests against area business leaders alluding to the Veiled Prophet organization by using the hashtag #UnveilTheProfit.
The Veiled Prophet organization was also the target of protests led by Civil Rights activist Percy Green during the 1960s and 70s for being elitist and racist. In 1972 Green engineered the unmasking of the Veiled Prophet at the VP Ball.
In 2000 historian Thomas Spencer published a book describing the formation of the organization and its annual parade as an attempt to reestablish a power hierarchy after the St. Louis labor strikes of 1877.
The Veiled Prophet organization disputes that narrative, telling the St. Louis Beacon in 2011 that “the founders were simply businessmen who wanted to network and promote their town as a great place to live, work and trade.”
Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.