On Thursday, Zaila Avant-garde became the first Black American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee. But 85 years ago, there was another little Black girl from Ohio who came close.
In 1936, MacNolia Cox was a 13-year-old eighth-grader at the Colonial School in Akron, Ohio. She was the first Black top-5 finalist at the National Spelling Bee that year, in which Elizabeth Kenny, another young Black student about whom little is known, also participated.
Cox’s journey to the national contest began at the Akron Armory, where the district spelling bee was held, on April 22, 1936. Over 2.5 hours, Cox spelled out words like “apoplexy” and “abstemious,” and finally sealed the deal when she spelled “voluble” to win the competition, according to an article in the Akron Beacon Journal from May 21, 2000.
Pocketing the $25 prize, Cox became the first Black student to win the Akron spelling bee. But her accomplishments didn’t end there. Cox got to travel to Washington D.C. to compete in the National Spelling Bee.
“I’m glad I won, and I hope I win in Washington,” Cox told the Akron Beacon Journal in 1936.
Her victory launched her into fame. Locally, churches worked together to raise money for a “wardrobe fund,” with one church collecting more than $9 for Cox, according to a May 5, 1936, article in the Beacon Journal. Today, that amount of money would be worth about $176.
Even nationally, Cox became a known name, with F.D. Patterson, then-president of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute of Tuskegee, Alabama, sending his well wishes, the Beacon-Journal said.
“We wish her every success in the world in the national contest,” he wrote.
The national competition was scheduled for May 26, 1936, and eventually the time came for Cox to make the journey to the nation’s capital. Accompanied by her mother, her teacher and a local reporter, Cox boarded the train to Washington, D.C. Thousands of people, including a military band, gathered outside the train station to cheer her on.
“This is the most fun I’ve ever had in my life,” she said at the time, according to the Beacon Journal.
But it was the time of segregation, and the young teenager faced hostility.
It started before Cox had even gotten off the train. Once the crew arrived at the Maryland state line, Cox and her mother had to move to the Blacks-only car, according to the Beacon Journal.
Cox didn’t even get to stay with the other spellers in a hotel. Instead, she and her mother stayed with a local doctor, the paper reported. At a banquet for the spellers, they also weren’t allowed on the main elevator. They had to enter via a back stairwell, and sit at a designated table away from the others.
On the day of the competition, there may have been some foul play.
Cox was performing well, becoming one of the remaining five contestants. That’s when the judges — all White and Southern, according to the Beacon Journal — hit her with a word not on the official list: Nemesis.
The word was immediately protested by the local reporter in attendance, who argued the word was against the rules. Nemesis, the name of the goddess of revenge, was capitalized in Cox’s dictionary, and capitalized words weren’t allowed in the contest, the Beacon Journal reported in 2000.
The judges discussed, ruling that the word was usable because of its colloquial usage, the paper reported. Cox misspelled, saying “N-e-m-a-s-i-s” instead, according to the paper. At fifth place, Cox was out.
But fifth place was still a victory, complete with a $75 reward. Upon her return to Akron, Cox was met with a parade of hundreds of cars and speeches by local figures, the paper reported.
“This is just the beginning for her,” said Arlena Bauford, then-president of the Akron chapter of the National Council of Negro Women, to the paper. “She has demonstrated what she can do, and what we as a race, can do. She stands as a symbol before us, and is up to us to see that she is given further opportunity to go ahead.”
Cox didn’t end up going to college, though, and instead found work as a domestic employee for a local doctor, the paper reported.
“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, according to the paper, nearly forty years after her history-making endeavor.
Though she may not have won the national competition, her journey paved the way for eventual champions like Zaila and Jodey-Anne Maxwell, who won representing Jamaica in 1998.
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