ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) - For more than 140 years, what’s now known as America's Biggest Birthday Parade has marched through the streets of St. Louis. When the parade began in the 19th century, it had a different name, the Veiled Prophet Parade.
“The history of the Veiled Prophet dates back to 1878, that year a group of elite St. Louisans got together and they decided they wanted to host a parade and a ball in the city, and they said they wanted to do this as boosterism for the city to draw in tourism dollars and things like that, but it’s impossible to divorce the context of that happening in the late 1870s and why the Veiled Prophet Parade and Ball was created,” said Adam Kloppe.
Kloppe is an historian with the Missouri History Museum who has studied the Veiled Prophet organization. He says the reasoning behind the Veiled Prophet (VP) goes back to what happened the year before the parade began.
“The previous year in 1877, there was a general strike in the City of St. Louis, where thousands of St. Louis workers, black and white, came together to protest for higher wages, safer working conditions, better working hours, things like that, and they essentially shut down the city for about a week,” said Kloppe.
So, the next year, the Veiled Prophet Organization was founded and began the parade and the tradition of a literal Veiled Prophet on a float. As Kloppe described, “The first incarnation of the prophet was on the float with a shotgun and a pistol, one in each hand, they were pretty clear about they were taking the streets back for the elites in the city.”
While the VP parade and ball went on for decades, 50 years ago it was met with a new round of protests.
“Throughout the 60s and 70s, there were a lot of organized protests against the Veiled Prophet Ball, a lot of those protests were organized by a group called ACTION here in St. Louis, a civil rights group,” said Kloppe.
Percy Green II was one of the founders of ACTION.
“We felt that that direct-action protests, would be most effective,” said Green.
He says their focus was on getting the wealthy, elite business owners of the Veiled Prophet organization to create better paying jobs for the working class of St. Louis.
“We were focusing on low and better paying jobs for black males, black men, the chief breadwinner of the home. And so, we felt that if we homed in on those jobs, they paid a decent salary,” said Green.
ACTION’s protests took on many forms as Kloppe described, “There was another year where a woman slid down a cable from one of the upper parts of the Keil Auditorium onto the stage and ripped the mask off of the man who was the Veiled Prophet then.”
Jane Sauer was a member of ACTION and was one of the women who snuck into the ball that year. She said they “gained entrance into the ball with tickets. We had proper tickets that were given by the debutante couple.”
She caused a distraction so another activist, Gena Scott, could slide down a cable and pull off the prophet’s veil.
“His identity was revealed when the mask came down, it was an executive from Monsanto, but the two major newspapers in St. Louis at the time, the Globe Democrat and the Post-Dispatch, agreed not to print his name, at least not for a time, to protect the identity of the Veiled Prophet,” said Kloppe.
The Veiled Prophet's identity was and is supposed to remain a secret.
“Every year, the organization has a new member actually be the figure of the Veiled Prophet, who is this hooded and robed figure, you can still see him if you go to the 4th of July parade, the Veiled Prophet is sitting on the first float or one of the first floats that’s coming down the way,” Kloppe said.
In a break from years past, the Veiled Prophet will not be in this year’s parade.
“The Veiled Prophet Organizations has done a lot to try and change its very troubling history. It’s hard to look at the history of the Veiled Prophet organization and not see that as troubling, and that’s something that some see as racist, as elitist,” said Kloppe.
While its membership remains something of a secret society, the VP began admitting black men in the 1970s, but women are still not allowed to be members.
“There are always changes, one of the things that’s interesting about the organization is that it is always evolving,” said David Plufka, the Grand Marshall of this year’s Parade. He admits the Veiled Prophet organization has come under the microscope over the past few months
“It is hard to try and defend actions that were taken 120, 130 years ago, where I have no personal knowledge of what went on,” said Plufka. “What I can say is this organization as it is set up now and has it has been set up for the last 30, 40 years is geared toward serving the community of St. Louis.”
Plufka says the VP is constantly looking forward and that was one of the reasons behind the re-naming of the parade, from the VP Parade to America’s Biggest Birthday Parade.
“There were a lot of reasons behind it, but I think primarily what the goal was to try and send a message that as an organization, we are trying to be collaborative and trying to be trying to work with everybody in St. Louis to make it a better places to live for all,” said Plufka.
But it's the cost of the parade and fair, in the millions of dollars, that was one of the main reasons behind ACTION's protests.
“We look at the northside and its deterioration of homes. What would $2 million do there? If you invested it, and housing, and when that have more long-lasting power in the city than a one-day, big fair,” said Sauer.
Most of the VP funding is from private donations, not tax dollars. As Plufka described, “So how much money we spend as an organization on that parade or Fair St. Louis or on community service projects, that’s constantly under evaluation, it’s not a static thing.”
The VP partners with dozens of charitable organizations each year, donating hundreds of volunteer hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars to dozens of local charities.
“A lot of that stuff is done all with the same goal in mind, that is to improve the City of St. Louis, to make St. Louis a better place to live for everyone,” said Plufka.
While some say the VP should come to an end, others believe it can be a change for good.
“You know for St. Louis to move forward and become a progressive city, we don't need any really no KKK like organizations, we need to eliminate that, it needs to go out of business” said Green.
“It’s hard to look at where we were in 1878 and not say that we have come a long way. We obviously have, there are members of VP that have done good things for the city, but we have a long way to go too,” Kloppe said.
As for Pluka, he is looking to the future.
“I believe strongly in our ability to evolve and continue to try and serve St Louis. I really think we are going to be able hold onto the best traditions as we continue to evolve,” he said.
Mayor Tishuara Jones was not at America's Birthday Parade on Saturday, citing the history of the VP organization as a reason why. A spokesperson for Jones sent the following statement:
Mayor Jones has said that St. Louis needs to have tough conversations to truly move forward, and this includes the conversation in early June that brought community's concerns about the Veiled Prophet to the forefront.
The organization has stated its commitment to doing better for the people of St. Louis moving forward, and the Mayor's involvement is contingent on their demonstration of that commitment. She will be spending the weekend with her family.