On Thursday, July 8, 2021, Zaila Avant-garde became the first African American winner of America’s prestigious Scripps National Spelling Bee.
The 14-year-old from New Orleans, Louisiana, won the title and a $50,000 cash prize at the competition held at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fl. A determined overachiever, she hopes to attend Harvard and aspires to a career at NASA—or as an NBC coach. Yet she has already found her place in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most basketball bounce juggles in one minute and had a following of more than 14,000 people on Instagram even before taking the spelling championship.
To win the contest, Avant-garde had to correctly spell such words as “querimonious,” “solidungulate,” and “Nepeta,” which she said was the hardest word she had to spell in the competition. She ended and won by correctly spelling the word “murraya,” thus becoming the first African American winner in the 96-year history of the spelling competition.
Earlier finalist cheated of prize
In 1936, however, decades before Avant-garde’s accomplishment, MacNolia Cox of Akron, OH, was on the way to a likely win of the National Spelling Bee. But as she proved herself a terrific competitor, the organizers began giving her words that had not been in the study lists, apparently to eliminate her as a finalist. Through round after round—35 in all—Cox correctly spelled words such as “colonnade,” “discrepancies,” and “promenade.” At the end, a judge gave her “Nemesis,” the name of the Greek goddess of retribution, which she did not spell correctly.
According to the rules, and her white teacher, Cornelia Greve, “Nemesis” was not legitimately included, because it was a proper name, nor was it in MacNolia’s study dictionary that was provided to all contestants. But the all-white panel of judges ruled that “nemesis” was also a common noun and therefore, even though it was not on the study list, was acceptable. That enabled the panel to eliminate Cox—ensuring that a white girl, Jean Trowbridge, got the prize.
Jim Crow ruled
The apparent rule-breaking to avoid having to give a Black child the prize was typical of the Jim Crow era. Washington, DC—where the national finals were held—was a segregated city. Cox and her mother could not stay at the famed Willard Hotel with the other contestants, but instead were housed by a prominent Black physician in the city. At the Maryland border they had had to move to a “colored” railway car. In Washington, they were required to enter the banquet hall through back stairs and the kitchen, and then were seated at a separate table from the other contestants and their coaches and families.
MacNolia Cox’s story was told in Whatever Happened to MacNolia Cox? by her niece, Georgia Lee Gay, and later in MACNOLIA by Professor A. Van Jordan of the University of Michigan. Jordan has won the Whiting Award, the Annisfield-Wolf Book Award, the PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Award, and the Pushcart Prize.
Some political factions striving to reimpose official discrimination
Fortunately, Avant-garde faces far less blatant discrimination in 2021 than that imposed on MacNolia Cox in 1936—the same year that Jesse Owens won four Olympic medals in Berlin, Germany, to the horror of the Games’ white-supremacist Nazi hosts (and of many in this country as well). But today’s rising tide of race-based voter-suppression laws, blatant discrimination, and white supremacy, inspired by Donald Trump and supported by the Republican Party, bodes poorly for the future.
The same forces that allowed overt cheating against Cox are resurgent once again. Those in the Black community who celebrate Zaila Avant-garde’s achievement must stay vigilant and active to avert a return to that bleak history.