Since its establishment in 1925, the Scripps National Spelling Bee competition has been dominated by white students. This month, 14-year-old Zaila Avant-garde made history by being the first African-American to win. Until Zaila’s historic victory, Jamaica’s Jody-Anne Maxwell was the only Black woman to have competed in and won the coveted competition in its history. In 1998, she was selected to represent Jamaica in the Olympics.
A 13-year-old Black girl came close to winning the National Spelling Bee in 1936, 11 years after the competition was first held, according to historical records. MacNolia Cox, a 1923-year-old spelling prodigy from Akron, Ohio, was born with exceptional spelling abilities. When she was 13, the eighth-grader at Colonial School in Akron, Ohio, competed in the 1936 Akron Spelling Bee, which was held at the Akron Armory, which also hosted the district spelling bee the following year.
According to an article in the Akron Beacon Journal, the young brilliant kid spelled out words such as “abstemious,” “apoplexy,” and “voluble” over the period of 2.5 hours to become the first Black youngster to win the Akron Spelling Bee. She was awarded $25 as well as a trip to Washington, D.C., to compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
According to Cox, who spoke to the Akron Beacon Journal, “I’m delighted I won, and I hope I win in Washington.”
As a result of her historic achievement, individuals in her community began to provide her with all of the assistance she required. While former Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute President F.D. Patterson offered his best wishes, black people of Akron collected $9 (about $176 in today’s money) for her “wardrobe fund.”
While traveling to the nation’s capital to compete in the National Spelling Bee, Cox encountered a number of difficulties. On May 26, 1936, Cox, her mother, a teacher, and a reporter from a local newspaper crossed the state boundary into Maryland. They were then transferred to a train car that was segregated. They were also compelled to remain in a segregated hotel when they reached Washington, D.C. after arriving from their journey. The spellers were invited to a banquet, and Cox and her crew were not permitted to use the main elevator during the event. They were instructed to enter through the stairway and sit at a table that was set aside for them away from the rest of the group.
As part of the competition, Cox was also required to sit in a separate section of the arena. A second Black youngster, 15-year-old Elizabeth Kenny from New Jersey, was also said to have flown with Cox to compete in the competition, according to the documentation.
The hostility Cox encountered did not deter her from performing admirably in the national competition, and she went on to become the first Black person to place in the top five of the National Spelling Bee that year. When the judges, who were all white and from the South, asked her to spell a term that was not on the official list, she struggled to find the right word.
When it came to the goddess of vengeance, Nemesis, the name was capitalized in Cox’s dictionary. According to the Beacon Journal, however, capitalized terms were not permitted in the sweepstakes. The local reporter who accompanied Cox on the trip objected, but the judges argued that the word may be used as a common noun in this context. Cox was taken aback and made a spelling error, which resulted in her elimination from the tournament. She received $75 in compensation and, regrettably, was unable to continue her education. Rather, she got work as a domestic assistant for a nearby doctor.
The Beacon Journal reported in 2000 that her aunt Mac’s niece Georgia Gay said her grandmother “would have wanted to have sent my Aunt Mac to college, but she was unable to do so due to financial constraints.” In those days, “grants and scholarships for those of us of color were not readily available,” explains the author.
Cox died of cancer on September 12, 1976, at the age of 53, after she was diagnosed with the disease. While she did not win the national competition 85 years ago, she did pave the way for Avant-garde and Maxwell, the only two Black girls who have won the National Spelling Bee in their respective generations.