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Behind Zaila Avant-garde’s win, a history of struggle for Black spellers

The historic victory has prompted reflection on the roadblocks other Black students who compete in spelling bees have faced.

14-year-old Zaila Avant-garde won the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee with the word 'Murraya'. Scott McIntyre / The New York Times


In 1936, MacNolia Cox, a 13-year-old girl from Akron, Ohio, made it to the final round of the National Spelling Bee.

She was the first Black student to get that far, but she was forced to sit in the back of the train that took her to Washington, she and her mother were not allowed to eat with the other spellers or their parents, and they had to take the stairs instead of an elevator to get to a pre-contest banquet, Mabel Norris, a reporter who wrote about MacNolia’s trip to the bee, recalled in a 1971 article she wrote in The Akron Beacon Journal.

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Still, MacNolia, an eighth grader, bested dozens of other competitors in the final competition and was one of the last five spellers left on the stage.

Zaila Avant-garde:

“The judges, all Southern educators, were becoming visibly uncomfortable,” Norris wrote.

They gave her the word “Nemesis.” MacNolia, who did not recognize it from the list of 100,000 words she had studied, misspelled it.

Norris immediately protested to the judges — Nemesis, the goddess of divine retribution and revenge, was technically a proper noun and not an eligible word. But it was too late. MacNolia was out.

“She didn’t cry, nor did her stoic mother,” Norris wrote. “But her teacher and chaperone did.”

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Eight-and-a-half decades later, Zaila Avant-garde, a 14-year-old eighth grader from Harvey, Louisiana, has become the first Black American student to win the competition, an achievement that has been celebrated by former President Barack Obama and LeBron James. (The first Black winner was Jody-Anne Maxwell, a 12-year-old from Jamaica, who won the National Spelling Bee in 1998.)

Zaila’s victory has also prompted reflection on the long history of struggle that other Black students who compete in spelling bees have faced.

“The national bee started in 1925, at the heart of Jim Crow laws that were not even being challenged yet,” said Shalini Shankar, a professor of anthropology at Northwestern University and the author of “Beeline: What Spelling Bees Reveal About Generation Z’s New Path to Success.”

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In 1962, the NAACP complained to the National Spelling Bee that school officials in Lynchburg, Virginia, had told Black students they could not participate in the national contest.

The national contest, now known as the Scripps National Spelling Bee, did not exclude Black children, but it is easy to surmise that they would have been left out at the regional level, Shankar said.

If a region had a Black winner and a white winner from segregated schools, she said, it is likely that a corporate sponsor would have chosen to pay for the white winner’s transportation, lodgings and fees and left the Black child on the sidelines.

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Even after schools were desegregated, schools whose students were largely Black or Latino remained underfunded, Shankar said.

“It’s not a surprise that they couldn’t emphasize spelling as an enrichment activity in the way that white schools could,” she said.

The contest is also an activity that has become more and more the province of those with resources to pay for tutors and online spelling programs, she said.

“The bee has never been a true meritocracy,” Shankar said. “It’s an invention of capitalism. Those who have the resources are going to have an advantage.”

The nearly 100-year-old Scripps National Spelling Bee acknowledged that it “has not been immune from the social issues of its times, including the long-fought battle for racial equality,” but added that it prided itself on “administering an academic program that’s accessible to millions of school-age children of every race, ethnicity or socioeconomic background.”

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“Our hope is that Zaila’s amazing accomplishments will be seen as an inspiration to other young people and another step forward in that cause,” the bee said in a statement.

Paul Ramsey, a Black retired English teacher in New York who taught in high school and college, grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, in the 1950s. His parents, math teachers, enrolled him in an all-Black Catholic school that was so poor it lacked indoor toilets, Ramsey said.

When Ramsey was about 11, his teachers, who were nuns, entered him into a citywide spelling bee against other, all-white, Catholic schools. To prepare, he had to study a list of about 200 words.

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He was the only Black student in the citywide contest and made it to the final two.

After he and his opponent, a white student, had exhausted the list of prepared words, the judge moved on to a list of words reserved for older students.

The nuns had not prepared Ramsey for those words, but the other student’s teachers clearly had.

When Ramsey lost, the audience of about 60 people cheered and clapped for him, impressed by his achievement.

“I was Black in a segregated situation,” Ramsey said. “They didn’t expect that. They didn’t even expect me to be second.”

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But he said he felt as if he had let his family, his school and his race down. He said he had never forgiven himself for losing.

“To have been a Black kid and to have won that spelling bee, that would have been really great,” Ramsey said.

In 2010, Jacqueline Terrell, who runs a nonprofit consulting firm in Houston, helped start the African American National Spelling Bee Championships, a contest for Black students similar to the tournaments geared toward South Asian Americans, like the South Asian Spelling Bee and the bee organized by the North South Foundation.

Terrell, who was the contest’s executive director, said the goal was not to create a path to victory at the Scripps National Spelling Bee but to enrich language skills for Black students in poor schools in Houston and eventually around the country.

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The pushback from some was swift, with media commentators complaining that the contest was divisive and sent the message to Black children that they could not compete on the same level as other children.

“They have a trophy that’s meaningless,” Michael Berry, a talk-show host for KTRH, said during a 2012 debate with Terrell about the contest. “There is no honor in that.”

Terrell said in an interview that she was surprised by the criticism.

“Why is it that when African Americans try to do something, it’s seen as divisive?” she said Saturday. “If we ever want our kids to succeed, we have to create a path or a lane for them to succeed.”

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Hundreds of children registered for the bee, which provided scholarship money for several winners who went on to college, Terrell said. But there was not enough community or corporate support to keep the contest going, and the final bee was held in 2019.

Terrell said that she had been thrilled when she saw Zaila win and that she hoped the victory would revive interest in community bees for Black children.

“I think a lot of people are going to jump on board now that Zaila has won,” she said.

Ramsey, the retired teacher, said Zaila’s win sends a message to other Black children.

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“We can do this,” he said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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