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Remembering the 1936 National Spelling Bee and how hatred eliminated a bright young girl

MacNolia Cox 1936 National Spelling Bee
Posted at 3:28 PM, Jul 19, 2021

AKRON, Ohio — Last week, 14-year-old Zaila Avant-garde became the first African-American winner of the National Spelling Bee, taking home the trophy after correctly spelling the word "murraya." The moment was exciting and groundbreaking, but also stirred up the history behind the journey leading up to the moment that should always be remembered.

Back in 1936, just 11 years after the National Spelling Bee was inaugurated, 13-year-old MacNolia Cox from Akron was a spelling prodigy with an IQ through the roof.

Cox had qualified for the National Spelling Bee held in Washington, D.C., but her journey to get there wasn't easy, nor was her time competing in the bee.

With segregation and Jim Crow laws still very much in full swing, Cox and another Black child, 15-year-old Elizabeth Kenny from New Jersey, were forced to travel to the National Spelling Bee in the "colored" car of the train, were unable to stay at the hotel with the other contestants, had to use the back door of the arena to get into the bee and were forced to sit at a card table once inside.

Still, despite the hardships she faced, Cox went on to become the first African-American finalist in the Top Five and was on her way to victory, having extensively studied the 100,000-word list given to every speller in the bee.

Cox overcame the obstacles in her way but could not get past the hatred in the hearts of the judges, who were all white southerners and had seen enough from the young Black girl from Akron.

A. Van Jordan, author of "M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A," said that what happened next was a despicable move from the bee's judges.

"They pulled a word that was not on that list, and you can't make this up: the word was nemesis," Van Jordan said.

The word had just moved into popular vernacular and was at the time most defined as the Greek goddess of retribution—a proper noun that should have been an ineligible word—but the judges argued that the word could be used as a common noun.

Cox misspelled the unapproved word and was eliminated from the bee.

The young girl, with dreams of becoming a doctor, was limited by the era she lived in. She became a domestic for a doctor and at the age of 53 died from cancer.

Cox faced numerous hardships in her life, one which took place on the grand stage of the 1936 National Spelling Bee. But her hardships now serve as a reminder of where we once where and where we've come to be—with Zaila being crowned the Spelling Bee champion, bringing Cox's trailblazing full-circle all these years later.

"When you see young people, you really have to encourage them. Something that may happen at that stage of their life can be indelible and can change the course of their life," Van Jordan said.

Now indelible is the moment Zaila provided with her win and how it prompts us all to remember the moments that came before—and the people, like Cox, who paved the way. And for the newest National Spelling Bee champ, she said MacNolia Cox was in her thoughts the night she won it all.

This story was originally published by Rob Powers and Camryn Justice at WEWS.