Spelling bee champ Zaila Avant-garde was inspired by a Black girl named MacNolia Cox. This is why.

By April White for The Washington Post

About 3,000 people jammed into Union Station in Akron, Ohio, on the evening of Sunday, May 24, 1936. A military band played. A young man led some of the crowd in cheers; others burst into song. They were all awaiting the arrival of an unlikely hero: a tall and slender 13-year-old Black girl named MacNolia Cox. The shy eighth-grader was Akron’s spelling bee champion.

A month earlier, MacNolia had stood on the stage at the city’s armory with 50 other children — the top scorers on a written spelling test. After 24 rounds, there were two spellers remaining. After 37 rounds, there were still two. Finally, MacNolia emerged victorious. With the proper spelling of “sciatica” and “voluble,” MacNolia became one of the first two Black children to qualify for the National Spelling Bee, held annually in the nation’s capital. The other was 15-year-old Elizabeth Kenney of New Jersey, who was also bound for Washington.

Zaila Avant-garde wins 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee, becoming bee’s first African American champion

John S. Knight, the publisher of the Akron Beacon Journal, which sponsored the regional competition, fretted over MacNolia’s win.

“Washington is a segregated city,” he told Mabel Norris, the 21-year-old White reporter assigned to accompany MacNolia, her mother, Ladybird, and MacNolia’s White teacher, Cordelia Greve, to the competition. “You will have all kinds of difficulties,” he said.

But MacNolia wasn’t thinking about any of that when she boarded the Capitol Limited with a new suitcase filled with new clothes, all gifts from the city’s Black community to a family that could not afford such indulgences. For 30 days, while she diligently studied, MacNolia had been celebrated by Black communities across the country, by churches, social clubs, academics and politicians, even by vaudeville celebrities. Band maestro “Fats” Waller and tap dancer Bill Robinson brought her onstage at the RKO Palace in Cleveland. Her name was mentioned in the same breath as singer Marian Anderson and athlete Jesse Owens — and now, this send-off.

“This is the most fun I’ve ever had in my life,” MacNolia declared with a wide grin.

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