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The Veiled Prophet returns to St. Louis for pomp and scrutiny

Missouri History Museum

Chances are most St. Louisans will neither notice nor show much appreciation for a 133-year-old gentleman who is returning to our town for a visit on Saturday.

He is the Veiled Prophet from the Kingdom of Khorassan. Insiders call him the Grand Oracle or G.O., for short. He used to be quite well known. Now not so much.

But for many years he was a symbol of St. Louis.

No, he was never as iconic as the Gateway Arch, though he has been around nearly a century longer. Nor is he as attractive and regal as the statue of Saint Louis, King Louis IX of France, that stands atop Art Hill in Forest Park. And when it comes to a popularity contest, Fredbird would win in a walk.

But for nearly all of his reign, the Veiled Prophet simply could not be ignored.

On Saturday, he returns for his parade in the streets of downtown St. Louis and on July 7, he is the subject of an event at the Missouri History Museum. It's called Symbols of Power: From Crowns to Veiled Prophet Gowns. Facilitators from the National Conference for Community and Justice are coming to assess the Grand Oracle's impact on our community.

The Veiled Prophet's mere existence is troubling to many and inspiring to others. On the one hand he is the rather innocent embodiment of a fairy tale, annually anointing a Queen of Love and Beauty. On the other, he is a reminder that our town is and has been divided along the lines of race, class and gender.

His garb is problematic for some. With his crown, veil and robe, he reminds some of a Klansman. Those in the organization describe him as a mythical Middle East potentate. These days even that presents a branding problem.

The Veiled Prophet in many ways defines discrimination and class distinction. The VP is selected by a secret society of men. He selects a queen based on criteria known only to him and his cronies.

But also consider that many of the businessmen involved are among the most accomplished in our community and have done great civic work. Back in the 1980s, the VP organization reinvigorated a great Independence Day celebration on the riverfront.

The queens and the hundreds of maids of honor come from privileged families. But they have made their parents and their city proud in a variety of professions and with their volunteer work. For the last several summers, the VP organization has recruited the debutantes to work for Operation Brightside, the Herbert Hoover Boys and Girls Club, Habitat for Humanity, St. Louis schools and Forest Park Forever.

Perhaps more importantly the entire organization has become more diverse.

Though the VP membership remains secret, a spokesman acknowledges that the group grew much larger -- had to grow much larger -- when it took on the responsibility for the weekend spectacular that is now called Fair Saint Louis.

You can easily pierce the veil of secrecy concerning membership by going online and finding literally thousands of pictures from the VP Ball taken by a local photographic firm and put up for sale. It is a gawker's delight.

While you don't exactly find a melting pot, you do see blacks sprinkled in a sea of whites and surnames of blue bloods mixed with those ending in vowels or a "z."

You can Google the names of just about anyone in these pictures and get a good sense of who they are and what they are about. You will find that they are not all captains of industry; not all very rich. Some serve as executive directors, stockbrokers, contractors and small businessmen.

Still, you are unlikely to find many, if any, plumbers and electricians, bartenders and waitresses, postal workers and delivery people, gardeners and assembly line workers.

When Thomas T. Cooke, the spokesman for the Veiled Prophet organization sat down for an interview, he expressed a mixture of sentiments. He is proud of the organization's philanthropic efforts. He is humble. We're just an organization of businessmen who are promoting St. Louis, he says. He is resigned to the notion that some people in the community will forever look at the Veiled Prophet with a jaundiced eye.

"I don't know any organization, any philanthropic or fraternal or private club ... the Kiwanis, the Masons, who want to go back and revisit their history," Cooke said.

Well, let's do it anyway.

The Streets of St. Louis, 1878

The VP organization's official history recounts that the Veiled Prophet parade began during a recession in the post-Civil War reconstruction era. A group of businessmen formed to revitalize the city's Agriculture and Mechanical Fair that annually drew thousands to St. Louis at harvest time.

The fair "put heads in beds" is the way, Cooke put it. To add something special, a group of businessmen decided to launch a grand parade led by a mythical figure. Two brothers, Alonzo and Charles Slayback, who had recently moved to St. Louis from New Orleans, led the group. Charles had been a member of the New Orleans Carnival society that annually participated in that town's Mardi Gras celebration, which dates back to the turn of the 18th century.

About 50,000 to 100,000 St. Louisans showed up for that first parade -- one that Alonzo dubbed the "First Panorama of Progress of the Veiled Prophets." It was held at night with the streets lit by torches, gas lights and Japanese lanterns.

At this point, we introduce Thomas M. Spencer, a history professor at Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville and author of a fascinating volume, titled "The St. Louis Veiled Prophet Celebration: Power on Parade 1877-1995." Spencer has a definite take on the meaning of the Veiled Prophet, one with which the organization is not in accord.

We will deal with that spin in a bit. But what Spencer has done is compile an impressive array of facts, including who belonged to the organization way back when and how they held their balls and what they put on their floats.

Those first events attempted to show a "parade of progress" in 17 floats or tableaux. Writes Spencer: "To Slayback, progress was the inexorable move of history from a desolate world of ice -- the glacial period in Earth's history -- to the development of agriculture through 'human genius,' to the modern world of 'wealth' and 'industry' in which 'a thrifty, prosperous population ... dwell[s] in happy homes surrounded by all the luxuries that enhance the enjoyment of life, luxuries that were themselves the natural sequence of the pursuit of these industries.' "

Now here comes Spencer's take on all this. These were a group of people who were attempting to create an elite group that could "assert control over the city streets after a serious challenge" from the labor movement.

Spencer notes that the Veiled Prophet organization was founded just a year after St. Louis endured a week-long general strike that paralyzed the city. Labor had promoted parades in the street and some looting had resulted in the aftermath.

That led to the formation of a citizen's militia, which put on a parade of its own with a show of weapons.

Business interests broke the strike and prevailed, but Spencer writes: "It is not surprising that a year later St. Louis would want to affirm the established order" through a parade in the streets. "With the strike suppressed, the business class felt it necessary to instruct St. Louisans on respect for hierarchy."

Cooke scoffs at Spencer's thesis that class warfare played a role in the founding of the organization. He says the founders were simply businessmen who wanted to network and promote their town as a great place to live, work and trade.

A Secret Society That Craved Attention

Though it shrouded itself in secrecy -- in part to retain its mystique -- the Veiled Prophet organization also craved attention. For many years, the group plied the media with information about its parade and debutante ball, the better to ensure a turnout on the streets and attention to whatever it sought to teach the masses.

For many years, the floats were educational in nature, aspiring to teach appreciation for history and the arts. Largely, it was the history of white people and the art they created.

And entirely, the ball at least until the last quarter of the 20th century was held for young, white Christian women whose papas would introduce them to society.

In the 1950s and 1960s, local stations broadcast the ball with reverential voice-over narration. As each maid was introduced, an anchor would tell viewers a little bit about the young woman and her family. In St. Louis, where there is probably at most just a degree or two of separation between the elite and middle class, those watching at home could compare notes about what they knew about the participants and remark on whether the Queen of Love and Beauty was really all that lovely and beautiful.

As far as diversity was concerned, the Veiled Prophet came late to the party. This did not seem to stick in St. Louis' craw until the civil rights movement was well underway. And it only began to get a whole lot of attention when Percy Green, an African-American social activist, made the VP organization a target.

While many progressives had an uneasy feeling about the VP organization, they appreciated that many members were stalwart civic leaders and philanthropists. They hoped the organization would become more inclusive. But not Percy Green. He wanted to see it eradicated. Then and now.

Over lunch in the Central West End, Green, now 75 years old, remembered how he was portrayed in the press as a militant and a rabble-rouser. He happily confesses to raising a ruckus. But he was always non-violent, espousing the approach of Martin Luther King. Back in the day, Green and his followers, both black and white in the group they called ACTION, would handcuff themselves to floats. After their arrest, they would go limp and force the police to carry them from the scene.

ACTION's finest VP hour -- at least from the organization's perspective -- came in 1972 when followers infiltrated the VP Ball and one of their number tore the veil off the Prophet, revealing Tom K. Smith, a Monsanto executive.

For Green, the Veiled Prophet provided a handy target to drive ACTION's agenda: jobs for African-American men. He believed that large employers fell short in that regard. And he knew that many of the men running those companies were part of the Veiled Prophet organization.

Green also made an effort to reach out to their daughters. He would send debutantes letters asking them to speak out for social justice in whatever way made them feel comfortable. He recalled being invited to the home of one debutante where several young women gathered (with parental permission) to ask him questions about his effort.

They were concerned that Green and his group might be violent because, according to Green "that's all that they had been hearing."

"What is it that you think that we have done that IS violent?'' Green said he asked the young women. "We stopped the parade. We handcuffed ourselves to floats. How does this compare to members of your families denying us jobs. Which action is most violent?

"Bingo," Green said recalling the moment with the young women. "Lights came on. Many said they hadn't thought of it that way."

The Reluctant Debutante

Just how much support Green generated among the debutantes can never be known. But at least some felt a degree of angst. His work helped to inspire a book by a former maid of honor, Lucy Ferriss, the daughter of a Franklin Ferriss, the late St. Louis County circuit court judge.

In "Unveiling the Prophet: The Misadventures of a Reluctant Debutante," Ferriss provides a compelling and detailed account of her participation in the Veiled Prophet Ball in 1972 -- the year of ACTION's unveiling of Tom K. Smith.

Ferriss described herself as a typical child of the late '60s and '70s, rebelling against the established order and experimenting with hallucinogens. Still, she confessed to enjoying playing dress up and went along with the pageantry to honor her father.

She went to the ball high on marijuana brownies.

"Sitting on the stage at the Veiled Prophet Ball," she recounts. "I was stunned by my own ecstasy. The last brownie had kicked in. I had done my bow. My dress was magnificent ... I loved everyone. I loved the Bengal Lancers in their red jackets, and the heralds in their pointy shoes. I loved Lissy Hawes, who as a special maid was just starting her series of bows, and looked as if she might throw up. I loved Hope Jones, former president of the Mary Institute Athletic Association, who would emerge in a few minutes and get her hairdo wrecked by the vise-like crown of the Queen. I loved the Prophet, everyone's true daddy, dressed in his brocade and gilt and wearing a gold-trimmed miter and silvery veil. I loved all 10,000 of the elite people who were politely watching us smile and stumble our way up to the stage. I loved Michael Edson (her date). I loved my parents. I was prodigal girl, home to eat the fatted calf and loving the taste of it."

Well, as you can see, this maid of honor sure can write. She has authored nine books and is writer-in-residence at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.

Integration Arrives

In 1979, the Veiled Prophet organization admitted three African-Americans to its ranks. One was Dr. R. Jerome Williams, a physician and civil rights leader. Williams, now 85, was the son of a physician who treated patients in an office east of downtown, just a couple of blocks from the route of the VP Parade.

Williams remembered watching the parade pass by in the 1930s, when he was 7 or 8 years old. He said that he, his family and friends enjoyed the spectacle, but despised the privileged people on the floats. He was among many less privileged youngsters in those days who took aim at the floats with pea shooters to register their disgust. (The practice was so widespread, historian Spencer noted, that confectioneries laid in a supply of pea shooters every year just ahead of the parade.)

Even so, Williams accepted when members of the VP organization approached him and two other African-Americans, Dr. William C. Banton II, and Dr. Eugene Mitchell, in 1979 about joining up.

"I went along with it to pave the way for future generations," Williams recalled in an interview at his home in the Central West End. "But I paid lots of hell." Friends questioned why he would want to join an elitist organization. Williams said he believed in walking through doors when they opened.

He noted that his son R. Jerome Williams Jr. was the first black to attend John Burroughs School, "ended up president of his class" and went on to earn degrees from Harvard and Duke before becoming a physician.

His daughter Jeralyn would become the VP's first African-American maid of honor in 1979.

In a telephone interview, Jeralyn said she really hadn't wanted to be in the ball. She didn't know any of the other young women participating, as most came from Mary Institute and she had attended Nerinx Hall. "But I understood the history behind it and its significance," she said.

Still, she said, "I didn't know what to expect." And then when she saw the ACTION protesters as the Williams pulled up to the Chase Hotel in their car, her anxiety peaked. They were recognized.

Despite ACTION'S official position that the VP should be eradicated not integrated, the protesters were cheering her dad. "They called out, 'Yeah, Dr. Williams," she said. " 'Go, Dr. Williams.' "

Jeralyn, who lives in Olivette, now has three sons and has not participated in VP events. If she had a daughter, she said, she would leave the decision about attending the ball entirely up to her.

Dr. Williams, for his part, quit the VP after a couple of years. Once on the inside, he said he still found it "an elitist organization .... run by a small circle of millionaires dictating to people what the hell to do."

But today, he feels differently about the Veiled Prophet group. "They have really opened their doors to all people," Williams said. "The leadership isn't very open, but the organization is."

That more benign impression began to take hold in the 1980s, but in fits and starts.

From Vp Fair To Fair Saint Louis

By the late 1970s, historian Spencer wrote, the Veiled Prophet organization "was struggling to stay alive and more importantly trying to give the public a reason for its existence."

That's when businessmen Ron Henges, William Maritz and others in the organization hit upon the idea of sponsoring a fair over the July 4 weekend at the riverfront. The idea did not come out of thin air. Famous-Barr had sponsored spectaculars at the riverfront that included an air show and fireworks beginning in the mid-1960s and ending in 1978.

An executive committee for the fair was formed and a separate foundation created to support the event. And the organization became more transparent when it released the names of the foundation board to the press. They included Maritz, Robert R. Hermann, Clarence Barksdale, E.R. Culver II, John R. Griesedieck, Robert Hyland Jr., Ivis Johnston, John Krey III and Donald E. Lasater. This probably was essential given that the fair for many years was going to need a public subsidy.

They called their event the VP (not Veiled Prophet) Fair and arranged to have the parade kick off the weekend.

As Cooke, the organization's spokesman, recalled that's when membership became much more diverse. The VP organization simply needed more hands on deck to run the annual spectacular. Moreover that membership had to be in tune with the community to create an attractive event. "You can't be effective in today's world unless you pull a committee together who have an understanding of social and ethnic backgrounds," he said.

In the early going, organizers hit some rough spots. They were accused of being tone deaf when they scheduled middle-of-the-road entertainers like Bob Hope, the Osmond Family and country singer Roy Clark who did not appeal to African Americans.

In 1987, the St. Louis Police closed the Eads Bridge, connecting the city to East St. Louis, during the fair's nighttime hours as a security measure. Given that East St. Louis' population is almost entirely African-American, this outraged and offended eastsiders and many others. The East St. Louis NAACP got a court order to reopen the bridge.

In response to the PR debacle, the Veiled Prophet organization formed a minority relations committee. In fact, year-by-year relations did improve. More African-American business people were brought into the organization, more acts that appealed to blacks were brought to the fair's main stage.

And then the organizers took one more step. In 1995, they changed the name to Fair Saint Louis. Some said the change came about because many people no longer knew what VP stood for and that made it tough to market the fair to corporate sponsors outside of St. Louis. But others acknowledged that VP -- Veiled Prophet -- came with baggage that many simply wanted to dump.

Still, it's not as if the Veiled Prophet has totally disappeared. His parade kicks off the weekend and he can be seen in all his glory on the lead float. At the same time, who do we find as the grand marshal for this year's parade? It's Henry Givens, the African-American president of Harris-Stowe State University. And in the recent past, African-American athletes Ozzie Smith and Jackie Joyner-Kersee have also served in that capacity.

Whatever hard feelings existed in the past regarding the VP organization have largely dissipated over the last 30 years, says Molly Hyland, daughter of the late broadcast pioneer Robert F. Hyland, and a former Queen of Love and Beauty.

Molly Hyland, who works in public relations, received the honor in 1984, just as the organization was beginning its outreach to the wider community. While a decade earlier Lucy Ferriss suffered some angst about participating in the ball, Hyland said she felt free to suffer a different kind of anxiety. First, she had to keep the secret for several months that she had been chosen as the queen. Then she had to deal with a very heavy bouquet of flowers and a train that extended about a mile behind her and then finally making her bow before the Grand Oracle without toppling over.

It wasn't a guilt-free experience for Hyland, but close.

"You had the fair and the parade and it all felt a lot more inclusive than the ball," she said. "I'm Catholic. I feel guilty about everything anyway. I thought it was a responsibility. A responsibility to my father, I guess. It was my father's honor and I appreciated and respected that."

Hyland, who continues to attend the VP Ball from time to time, also feels good about the fact that recent Veiled Prophet queens and maids are civic-minded. This year the VP maids and their families will work summer weekends with six to eight non-profit agencies.

"I was always into service" as a young woman, Hyland said. "Some girls now maybe need that encouragement. I think it's great. I wish they had done that a long time ago."

For his part, Cooke feels proud of the organization that he represents. Beyond putting on a nice show, the VP organization has contributed to St. Louis in other tangible ways, including providing funding for the Arch's Grand Staircase, the Overlook Stage on Wharf Street and the lighting of Eads Bridge.

So the next time you see the Veiled Prophet at the parade -- or if you are so privileged, at the ball -- you may choose to bow, you may curtsey, or you may reach for your pea shooter. Just know that he was here before you arrived and he is likely to remain long after you are gone.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.