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The Washington Post wrote about the teen who inspired Zaila Avant-Garde, the first African American to win the national spelling bee. A 13-year-old girl from Akron, MacNolia Cox, was among the first Black Americans to make it to the national spelling bee, 85 years ago. Her story says a lot about her determination, but also about the racism and segregation that she had to endure when she went to the championship bee in Washington, D.C. (Zaila is not only a spelling champion; she holds three Guinness World Records for her basketball skills. Watch the video. She’s amazing.) I had never heard of MacNolia Cox, but Zaila had, and she knew anything was possible.
About 3,000 people jammed into Union Station in Akron, Ohio, on the evening of Sunday, May 24, 1936. A military band played. A young man led some of the crowd in cheers; others burst into song. They were all awaiting the arrival of an unlikely hero: a tall and slender 13-year-old Black girl named MacNolia Cox. The shy eighth grader was Akron’s spelling bee champion.
A month earlier, MacNolia had stood on the stage at the city’s armory with 50 other children — the top scorers on a written spelling test. After 24 rounds, there were two spellers remaining. After 37 rounds, there were still two. Finally, MacNolia emerged victorious. With the proper spelling of “sciatica” and “voluble,” MacNolia became one of the first two Black children to qualify for the National Spelling Bee, held annually in the nation’s capital. The other was 15-year-old Elizabeth Kenney of New Jersey, who was also bound for Washington.
John S. Knight, the publisher of the Akron Beacon Journal, which sponsored the regional competition, fretted over MacNolia’s win.
“Washington is a segregated city,” he told Mabel Norris, the 21-year-old White reporter assigned to accompany MacNolia, her mother Ladybird and MacNolia’s White teacher, Cordelia Greve, to the competition. “You will have all kinds of difficulties,” he said.
But MacNolia wasn’t thinking about any of that when she boarded the Capitol Limited with a new suitcase filled with new clothes, all gifts from the city’s Black community to a family that could not afford such indulgences. For 30 days, while she diligently studied, MacNolia had been celebrated by Black communities across the country, by churches, social clubs, academics and politicians, even by vaudeville celebrities. Band maestro “Fats” Waller and tap dancer Bill Robinson brought her onstage at the RKO Palace in Cleveland. Her name was mentioned in the same breath as Marian Anderson and Jesse Owens — and now, this send off.
“This is the most fun I’ve ever had in my life,” MacNolia declared with a wide grin.
“Bring back the championship,” hollered one person in the crowd.
“I’m going to try,” MacNolia promised as she settled in for her first train ride.
Hours later, near the Maryland border, MacNolia and her mother were ushered from their berths into the Jim Crow car.
The stories Mabel Norris wrote for the Akron Beacon Journal from Washington in May 1936 describe a fairy tale. Young MacNolia was whisked around the capital, seeing all the sights and even meeting President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Beacon Journal did not seem to think its readers wanted to hear the rest of the story.
Norris did not mention the segregated train cars, and she described MacNolia’s accommodations in the city as “one of the finest tributes to the Akron district champion.” MacNolia and her mother were staying in great comfort, as the guests of a prominent Black surgeon, T. Edward Jones, who lived near U Street, the city’s “Black Broadway.” But they were doing so only because they were not welcome at the Willard Hotel where the other White competitors stayed. MacNolia could not understand why, and her mother was at a loss to explain.
On the night before the competition, the 17 finalists were invited to a banquet at the Hamilton Hotel. Mabel Norris waited by the elevator for the pair to arrive, until she felt a tap on her shoulder. The spelling bee champion, in a white frock, stood behind her. Mother and daughter had not been allowed to use the front entrance to the hotel. Instead, they were directed through the kitchen and up the backstairs. In the banquet room, a two-seat table had been set apart from the head table where the White children sat.
But MacNolia seemed undaunted as she crossed the stage at the National Museum auditorium in her blue organdy dress and blue socks just before 10 a.m. on the morning of May 26, 1936. “As cool as a cucumber,” Norris wrote. “The least excited and nervous of the group.” Spelling, certainly, was the same no matter if you were Black or White…
There were 10 spellers left when the competition began airing live on the radio over the Columbia Broadcast System; Elizabeth Kenney had been the 11th. “P-R-O-M-E-N-A-D-E,” MacNolia spelled.
There were just five left when MacNolia got the word “Nemesis.” “Oh, no!” Cornelia Greve exclaimed. She flipped through MacNolia’s dictionary, filled with red check marks for the words the girl had studied, but there was no mark next to “Nemesis.” She had believed proper nouns would be excluded from the word list.
MacNolia looked up at the ceiling again and started to spell “N-E-M- … ” she began.
Mable Norris jumped up in protest as MacNolia finished the word, spelling it incorrectly. Norris, too, believed the word violated the contest rules. “No capitalized words shall be given,” she reminded the judges. Nemesis is a Greek goddess who exacts retribution against those who show hubris.
After a long, heated argument, the judges huddled to consider Norris’s objection. Norris walked over to the CBS announcer and made her case on the air: It was discrimination, she told the national audience. The judges were uncomfortable with the idea of a Black winner, she said, a charge the judges would deny.
MacNolia’s retelling of the next moment, published in “Whatever Happened to MacNolia Cox?,” a biography written by her niece Georgia Lee Gay, is unemotional: “It was supposed to be spelled with a capital letter and was not part of the official list, so the judges ruled me out of the contest.” MacNolia did not shed a tear when she was eliminated, but Norris remembered crying for her.
A Black girl’s triumph
MacNolia Cox returned to Akron to a welcome as grand as her send-off. She was feted with armfuls of roses and chauffeured in a car parade in her honor. The procession ended at her school, where MacNolia was introduced to hundreds of cheering classmates. The city’s former mayor wrote a poem that underlined her achievements: “A child whose forebears sold for gold / On slavery’s auction blocks / Has brought renown to our old town. / All hail, MacNolia Cox.”
But the attention soon faded. Gay wrote that the opportunities and college scholarships that were promised in the months after the bee never materialized and MacNolia was left scarred by the prejudice she experienced. “In some ways, she felt she would have been better off to have never won the Beacon Journal bee,” she wrote.
MacNolia Cox — then MacNolia Montiere — died in 1976 at the age of 53. Her obituary mentioned the Beacon Journal bee, but her story has now faded for most but her family — and one 14-year-old Black girl from Louisiana.
As she stood on the National Bee Stage on Thursday night, Zaila Avant-garde told reporters, she thought of MacNolia and what she had endured 85 years earlier. Then Avant-garde looked down and calmly spelled the winning word — M-U-R-R-A-Y-A — becoming the first African American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee.