Watermelons and Prophets

Illustration of one of the floats in the 1890 Veiled Prophet procession (St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Oct. 5, 1890)

Organizers of the Order of the Veiled Prophet in 1878, led by Confederate veterans Charles and Alonzo Slayback, sought to lift the city’s profile as a growing, affluent commercial hub. But, early on, the all-white, all-male Veiled Prophet promoted racist tropes, which were unapologetically echoed by all the leading newspapers of St. Louis.

One theme, which appeared several times in the organization’s first four decades, depicted “carefree” African Americans, gorging on watermelons. “One of the best comic floats in the procession,” the Globe-Democrat said of the 1890 display.

In The Atlantic in 2014, historian William R. Black explained how watermelons emerged as a politically potent symbol used by whites — and it’s worth revisiting to better understand the racist underpinnings of the Veiled Prophet organization.

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