A History of Struggle for Black Spellers at Scripps National Spelling Bee

MacNolia Cox won the Akron district spelling bee in 1936. (Credit…The Akron Beacon Journal)

In 1936, MacNolia Cox, a 13-year-old girl from Akron, Ohio, made it to the final round of the National Spelling Bee.

She was the first Black student to get that far, but she was forced to sit in the back of the train that took her to Washington, she and her mother were not allowed to eat with the other spellers or their parents, and they had to take the stairs, instead of an elevator, to get to a pre-contest banquet, Mabel Norris, a reporter who wrote about MacNolia’s trip to the bee, recalled in a 1971 article she wrote in The Akron Beacon Journal.

Still, MacNolia, an eighth grader, bested dozens of other competitors in the final competition and was one of the last five spellers left on the stage.

“The judges, all Southern educators, were becoming visibly uncomfortable,” Ms. Norris wrote.

They gave her the word “Nemesis.” MacNolia, who did not recognize it from the list of 100,000 words she had studied, misspelled it.

Ms. Norris immediately protested to the judges — Nemesis, the goddess of divine retribution and revenge, was technically a proper noun and not an eligible word. But it was too late. MacNolia was out.

“She didn’t cry, nor did her stoic mother,” Ms. Norris wrote. “But her teacher and chaperone did.”

Eight and a half decades later, Zaila Avant-garde, a 14-year-old eighth grader from Harvey, La., has become the first Black American student to win the competition, an achievement that has been celebrated by former President Barack Obama and LeBron James. (The first Black winner was Jody-Anne Maxwell, a 12-year-old from Jamaica, who won the National Spelling Bee in 1998.)

Zaila’s victory has also prompted reflection on the long history of struggle that other Black students who compete in spelling bees have faced.

“The national bee started in 1925, at the heart of Jim Crow laws that were not even being challenged yet,” said Shalini Shankar, a professor of anthropology at Northwestern University and the author of “Beeline: What Spelling Bees Reveal About Generation Z’s New Path to Success.”

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SOURCE: The New York Times, Maria Cramer and Alexandra E. Petri

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