Zaila Avant-garde dominates in spelling competitions and sports. Photo credit: Avant-garde Instagram page

Spell r-a-c-i-s-m. Avant-garde’s win as first African American student to win U.S. national spelling bee tells a longer history of white supremacy

5 mins read

When a young, gifted and Black Louisianan dominates a prestigious competition, she uncovers a history in spelling bee contests that has long been missing.

July 8, 2021 will always be a significant date for 14-year-old Zaila Avant-garde of Harvey, Louisiana. It’s the day she became the first African American to win a Scripps National Spelling Bee. She is also the first winner from Louisiana. In 1998, 12-year-old Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica, who is also Black, won the competition. Avant-garde and Maxwell are the only Black contestants to win the spelling bee in its 96-year history.

“It made me feel really proud,” said Avant-garde. “I’m really hoping that lots of little brown girls all over the world and stuff are really motivated to try out spelling and stuff because it’s really a fun thing to do and it’s really a great way to kind of connect yourself with education, which is super important.”

Avant-garde, whose last name was given to her by her father as a salute to avant garde saxophonist John Coltrane, had participated in spelling bees for only two years. She told the BBC that she practiced by studying 13,000 words per day. She has credited her win to hard work and exploring the roots of difficult words. 

There were 209 regional winners from the U.S. in this year’s spelling bee, as well as, contestants from Ghana, Japan, Canada and the Bahamas. In the final round, held live and in person at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Only two of eleven young people had remained: Avante-garde and Chaitra Thummala, 12, from Frisco, Texas. Thummala’s misspelling of “neroli oil” made Avant-garde the last person standing and the winner of its $50,000 cash prize when she accurately spelled “murraya,” a genus of Asiatic and Australian trees.

Avant-garde told CBS News This Morning that it felt “really good” to win after working two years toward that goal. “It’s kind of like a dream come true,” she said. “And so, to finally have it, it’s like the best possible outcome, because it couldn’t have gone any better.”

The kid’s got talent

The multi-talented Avant-garde is also gifted in basketball. She holds three Guinness World Records for most basketballs juggled in a minute, the most basketballs dribbled by one person simultaneously, and the most dribbles in 30 seconds with four basketballs.

After attending Harvard University, her college of choice, Avant-garde wants to play for the WNBA one day.

Asked on CBS News This Morning how she feels about being the first African American to win the national spelling bee, Avant-garde referred to a possible African American winner decades ago. “That’s kind of sad,” she stated. Indeed, Avant-garde was correct with her history. There were two African American girls who could have been national spelling bee winners.

A win deferred

Marie C. Bolden, of Cleveland, Ohio was the first-ever Black girl to participate in a national spelling bee. A 14-year-old eighth grader from Hough School, Bolden was one of 510 students from all over the country to compete in the National Education Association’s spelling bee. 

As part of the teachers’ union’s annual convention, the event was held on June 29, 1908. The purpose of the spelling bee was to encourage a better teaching of spelling. Cleveland was one of 34 cities that sent contestants to the event, including Buffalo, Boston, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and New Orleans.

The New Orleans team almost pulled out of the spelling bee when its members found out a Black girl was a contestant. The team demanded that Bolden be removed from the competition. The Cleveland school superintendent at the time, William Harris Elson, refused to expel Bolden from the team. He telegraphed the New Orleans team, which ultimately decided to remain in the contest.

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The spelling bee took place in Cleveland’s now defunct Hippodrome, the city’s downtown theater which featured live performances and films. The contestants began by taking a 100-word written spelling test. When the students finished, their tests were graded, and they were given four words to spell aloud before the theater audience.

In the end, it was then determined that Bolden was the individual winner for spelling all words correctly. Just like that,  the Cleveland team won for its city. Pittsburgh’s team won second place, and New Orleans placed third.

But Bolden’s victory was short-lived. A professor who supplied words for the written test gave the wrong definition for the word “capitol.” The mistake resulted in Bolden losing her title and giving two other team members perfect scores. Cleveland’s team remained the national winner. Bolden kept her gold medal from when she was declared the individual winner. Plus, the story made national headlines. Years later, Bolden married and moved to Canada, according to a granddaughter.

The kid’s got talent

There was not another Black national spelling bee contestant until 1936, when 13-year-old MacNolia Cox of Akron, Ohio won a local spelling bee and went  on to participate in the national event on May 26, 1936. Avant-garde has cited Cox as her inspiration for participating in the national spelling bee this year. 

Cox won $25 and a train trip to Washington, D.C.for the spelling competition. Along with her mother, they were sent off at the Union Depot by cheering crowds and a military band. But once their train reached the Maryland state line, Cox and her mother were forced to move to the train car for “Blacks only.”  In the then segregated capitol,Cox and her mother were not allowed to occupy the same hotel as the white contestants. So, they stayed in the home of a local Black doctor, T. Edward Jones.

Instead of the main elevator, the duo was forced to use the hotel’s back stairwell to reach the spelling bee banquet. Once there, they were given a table to the side of the room and away from the other states’ spelling champions.

During the spelling bee, it looked like Cox would win. That is, until the judges, all Southern white men, gave her a word that was not one of the 100,000 words Cox had memorized: “Nemesis.”  Nouns were not supposed to be on the list of approved spelling words, and “nemesis” was not on the list because it was a noun. 

In Greek mythology, “Nemesis” is the name of the Greek goddess of vengeance, which makes the word a noun. But the panel insisted that the word meant “fate,” not “vengeance.” Thus, they gave it to Cox. She misspelled it, winning fifth instead of first place.Cox won $75 and returned to Akron, welcomed by more parades, accolades and speeches. 

“This is just the beginning for her,” said Arlena Bauford, then president of the National Council of Negro Women’s Akron chapter. As quoted in the Akron Beacon Journal newspaper, Bauford added, “She has demonstrated what she can do, and what we as a race, can do. She stands as a symbol before us, and it is up to us to see that she is given further opportunity to go ahead.”  Yet Cox became a domestic for an Akron doctor; never having the opportunity to attend a college. She died of cancer on September 12, 1976, according to the Akron Beacon Journal. 

Although Avant-garde is happy about winning the national spelling bee, she considers it “a side thing,” as she told Revolt TV. “Basketball, I’m not just playing it. I’m really trying to go somewhere with it. Basketball is what I do.  [Spelling] is like a little hors d’oeuvres. But basketball’s like the main dish.”

Margaret Summers has worked as a print and radio news reporter and a media relations professional. She lives in Washington, D.C.

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