This month, 14-year-old Zaila Avant-garde made history when she became the first African American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee competition since its inception in 1925. Until Zaila’s history-making feat, Jamaica’s Jody-Anne Maxwell was the only Black contestant to have won the prestigious competition. She won representing Jamaica in 1998.
But back in 1936, 11 years after the National Spelling Bee was inaugurated, a 13-year-old Black girl nearly took home the trophy. MacNolia Cox from Akron, Ohio was a spelling prodigy born in 1923. When she was 13, the eighth-grader at the Colonial School in Akron, Ohio participated in the 1936 Akron Spelling Bee at the Akron Armory, where the district spelling bee was held.
Over the course of 2.5 hours, the young bright student spelled out words like “abstemious”, “apoplexy” and “voluble” to become the first Black teen to win the Akron Spelling Bee, according to an article in the Akron Beacon Journal. She took home $25 and a ticket to Washington, D.C. for the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
“I’m glad I won, and I hope I win in Washington,” Cox told the Akron Beacon Journal.
With her history-making achievement, people in her community started giving her all the support she needed. Black residents of Akron raised $9 (about $176 now) for her “wardrobe fund” while former Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute President F.D. Patterson sent his best wishes.
Cox’s struggles however began during her journey to the nation’s capital for the National Spelling Bee. On May 26, 1936, Cox and her mother, teacher and a local reporter arrived at the Maryland state line. There, they were moved to a segregated train car. And when they arrived in Washington, D.C., they were forced to stay in a segregated hotel as well. A banquet was held for the spellers, where Cox and her team were not allowed on the main elevator. They were asked to enter through the stairwell and sit at a designated table away from the others.
During the competition, Cox was also forced to sit in a different area. It is documented that another Black child, 15-year-old Elizabeth Kenny from New Jersey, traveled with Cox as well to participate in the competition.
In spite of the racism Cox had to face, she performed amazingly well in the national competition, becoming the first Black top-5 finalist at the National Spelling Bee that year. But then the judges, who were all White and Southern, asked her to spell a word which was not on the official list – Nemesis.
Nemesis, the name of the goddess of revenge, was capitalized in Cox’s dictionary. However, capitalized words were not allowed in the contest, the Beacon Journal reported. The local reporter who traveled with Cox protested but the judges argued that the word could be used as a common noun. Shocked, Cox misspelled the word and was eliminated from the competition. She took home $75 and sadly could not go to college. Rather, she found work as a domestic employee for a local doctor.
“My grandmother, though she would’ve loved to have sent my Aunt Mac to college, unfortunately was unable to do so,” her niece Georgia Gay told the Beacon Journal in 2000. “And back during those times, they were not too willing to give out grants and scholarships to those of us of color.”
Cox died of cancer on September 12, 1976, at the age of 53. And even though she didn’t win the national competition 85 years ago, she did open the door for Avant-garde and Maxwell, the only two Black girls to win the National Spelling Bee.