Eighty-five years before Zaila Avant-garde became the first Black American winner of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, MacNolia Cox took the Bee by storm.
She, along with Elizabeth Kenny, became the first Black participants of the Spelling Bee. Their presence at the 1936 Bee, however, wasn’t universally welcomed.
MacNolia’s story is the subject of a new book, “How Do You Spell Unfair?: MacNolia Cox and the National Spelling Bee,” authored by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Frank Morrison. The book was released last month, some 87 years after MacNolia’s appearance at the bee.
MacNolia was an incredibly accomplished speller who earned her way to the bee after winning her regional bee in Akron, Ohio. She reportedly enjoyed reading the dictionary for fun.
The book highlights the racism MacNolia faced at the bee. According to the Afro American newspaper, MacNolia was eliminated by misspelling the word “nemesis.” The newspaper reported that MacNolia’s sponsor, the Akron Beacon Journal, protested her disqualification, claiming the word should not have been given to her because it was considered a proper noun.
Bee judges disagreed, claiming the word was used as frequently as common nouns. The Bee also disputed that she was given the word because of her race.
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Before her elimination, she was considered one of the stronger contestants. The Afro American said she correctly spelled words such as chlorine, analogous, accede and baccalaureate.
Regardless of the ruling, she was subjected to racism as she was often segregated from other contestants, including not being allowed to stay at a hotel with other contestants.
“I get the sense when she got to the National Bee, it was a different world for her than what she experienced in, in Akron,” Weatherford said.
Weatherford speaks directly to young readers in her book about MacNolia’s experience. She explains MacNolia’s journey by having the reader spell words like famous and dedication.
“Can you spell famous?” Weatherford said. “That's when her name was uttered in the same breath as Joe Lewis and Jesse Owens.”
“And can you spell dedication?” she added. “So, of course, that's one of the character traits that was required of her.”
“Can you spell discrimination?” Weatherford continued. “Do you even know what it means? So, I really want kids to get into the book, and I invite them in by breaking the fourth wall.”
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And conversely, as she asks questions of the readers in her book, she hopes children ask questions, too.
“After hearing, reading my books that are on 'difficult subjects' like segregation or slavery or civil rights, they asked, why, why, why did people treat other people that way?” Weatherford said. “You know, why was MacNolia mistreated? Kids would say that the judges cheated on her. You know, kids have a much more absolute sense of justice than we do as adults.
“So kids totally get it when they read a story like this and they empathize with MacNolia because of the injustices that she faced, the discrimination on her trip to D.C.”
Following Zaila’s win in 2021, MacNolia received a bit of posthumous attention. In September 2021, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution honoring her appearance in the 1936 bee. Although Weatherford said oftentimes Senate resolutions get overlooked, she said it was “heartening.”
“I was certainly glad to see it and it was definitely long overdue, long overdue,” she said.
Scripps News is a subsidiary of The E.W. Scripps Co., which runs the Scripps National Spelling Bee on a not-for-profit basis.
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