Spelling Out a New Narrative
Despite racial threats, Black student wins first-ever national spelling bee in 1908
With 14-year-old Zalia Avant-garde's widely celebrated victory at the Scripps National Spelling Bee this past summer, journalists and historians were quick to address the systemic barriers which often excluded Black students from such competitions. This was not lost on Avant-garde, who afterward said she hoped her win would motivate more young girls who looked like her to compete in these spelling bees.
Despite these past barriers, nearly two decades before the first Scripps competition in 1925, Avant-garde's home state of Louisiana played a much different role in the story of the nation's first-ever national spelling bee, when a Black 13-year-old student from Cleveland, Ohio named Marie C. Bolden won.
It was the summer of 1908 and the 46th annual convention of the National Education Association was staging in Cleveland. The teachers' union, which was chartered by Congress only two years earlier, had an eventful schedule for the week.
"Cleveland bristled with entertainment," the New York Times reported. "The streets and buildings are gaily decorated. The school teachers and Clevelanders filled the streets and public places. ... Thousands of Cleveland homes were thrown open to entertain the visitors."
The convention opened with a chorus of 500 students. Talks were given by esteemed university presidents. Yearly resolutions were passed. There were discussions and debates over how to solve the teacher shortage, the profession's low pay despite high qualifications, and perhaps the most important question: How could public education be made more useful for all students?
"What can the school do to make life worth living during the hours in which the individual is not engaged in the struggle for bread?" one featured speaker wondered, adding that he feared schools were becoming too industrial-minded. A public education, he argued, should help young people "enjoy the things of the mind" rather than merely prepare them "for work in a silk mill, a tobacco shop, a caramel factory and the other industries."
Other educational leaders stressed the importance of ensuring all public schools had libraries as well as art and music programs. "America will become the greatest singing nation in the world within the next decade," one music teacher contended. Booker T. Washington, who was in attendance, spoke concerning inequities in public education, pointing out how northern students received ten times the per pupil spending of Black students in the South.
Much of the anticipation, though, was for the first-ever national spelling bee set for the convention's second day. Leading up to the event, schools held spelling competitions to select representatives for the national contest. Eventually, four teams of 15 eighth grade students were selected representing the cities of Cleveland, Erie, Pittsburgh, and New Orleans.
In many cities, spelling contests were segregated along with their schools and Black students were often not eligible for entry in the larger competitions. This was the case in deeply segregated New Orleans. As such, when the superintendent of the white New Orleans schools inquired of the school board what he should do if their white students had to share the stage with a Black speller from a northern team, one board member replied, "Knock the n----- out." The New Orleans team, who was favored to win, almost backed out of the competition altogether when they learned about Cleveland having a Black student on their team. Warren Hicks, the assistant superintendent of Cleveland's schools who was organizing the event, stood firm when they threatened to withdraw. Hicks stated that Bolden had earned her spot. Although the New Orleans superintendent was frustrated, he decided against withdrawing.
So, the students from Erie, Pittsburgh, and New Orleans made their way to Cleveland by train that June.
"The Erie boys and girls who go to enter the big spelling bee at Cleveland, O. today, left this morning with the good wishes of all Erie for their success," the Erie Daily Times reported on the morning of the events, noting that Erie was "well represented." Maria Farley, the principal of Erie's School No. 2 (aka Jones), and superintendent H.C. Missimer accompanied the students.
The competition took place at Cleveland's Hippodrome Theater, which had only opened on Euclid Avenue that previous December and had one of the world's largest stages. As competition time neared and the students waited anxiously backstage, each of the 3,500 seats were filled. Thousands more stood to watch. The papers estimated 6,000 total people in attendance.
The 60 students entered the stage to thunderous applause, many visibly nervous as they approached their seats, but described by a reporter as a "bright looking lot of youngsters." The spelling bee commenced with the written portion. This consisted of 100 words, carefully selected by a committee, and, as was standard with spelling bees of the era, they were commonly used but misspelled words.
"I was trembling all over when the spelling began," Marie, who had never been in front of such a crowd, later said. "I knew that wouldn't do, so I just twisted my thumbs in the belt of my dress and steadied up." Whatever nerves she had, when she handed in her paper for the written portion, she knew she had them all correct.
After the written portion, the competition moved to the oral segment. A public speaking professor from Chicago University had been selected to pronounce the words. Before he began though, he gave a "wholly uncalled for and out of place" speech, according to reports, although it's unclear exactly what was said. This noticeably made the already nervous children even more uneasy.
"Ten at a time the children stood up," described the Erie Daily Times. "The words were given one at a time to the children in sequence. A committee composed of one representative from each city having a team wrote down the words as the children spelled them."
As the contest continued, the professor was frequently facetious with the students. The children didn't seem to know how to respond to his comments. He told one boy he'd pay for him to get a haircut. To another, he cracked a joke that his trousers were too big. At one point, he mocked the contest itself, saying, "I can imagine members of the National Association of 2008 looking over its archives and wondering why children ever had to spell words like these."
"There must be good men in that institution and it is unfortunate that it is so widely advertised by the other kind," an editor for the Western Teacher journal later penned. "A worse choice for this occasion could hardly have been made."
The journal noted how he made numerous mistakes, in one case unable to distinguish exercise and exorcise. When murmurs of dissent began, he became confrontational, stoutly declaring, "That is the way to pronounce it."
"But it isn't," the journal noted.
Nonetheless, the contest continued. The professor's antics did not seem to distress Marie either, who continued to spell every word correctly. When it was over, the team results were tallied. Out of 500 total words, Erie's team missed 85. New Orleans missed 66. Pittsburgh missed 47. Cleveland only missed 40 and was declared the winner.
Erie, it was explained later, hadn't held any preliminaries like the other cities and instead had relied on teacher selection. In Pittsburgh, the loss was blamed on Andrew Carnegie, who in 1906 had founded and funded the Simplified Spelling organization which lobbied to make the English language more phonetic and, in turn, confused the city's students. In Louisiana, the white-owned newspapers alleged that the students of New Orleans had simply been thrown off by having to compete on stage with a Black student.
This student was, of course, Marie C. Bolden. She had spelled every word correctly and was proclaimed the individual winner of the entire spelling bee. After the declaration of Cleveland as the winning team, Marie was called to center stage to a "storm of applause." A gold medal was pinned to her dress and she was swarmed by hundreds who offered handshakes and their congratulations. This included her competitors, even some students from New Orleans.
Booker T. Washington, who had been in the audience, said on stage later that evening to laughs and approving applause, "You will admit that we spell out of the same spelling book that you do. And I think you will also admit that we spell a little better."
"I did not enter the spelling contest for personal glory, but to try to help bring honor to my teacher and my school," Marie told the New York Times modestly, adding that reading the newspaper every day had helped her with her spelling.
"I studied my spelling every day," she told another reporter, explaining that her father, a Cleveland mail carrier named John, helped her daily and that she must have memorized 10,000 words. "It seemed spelling came natural to me, but I wanted to be positive I knew every word. I drilled through the spelling book and the dictionary."
"I could not find a word she could not spell correctly," her father confirmed. Although he had been worried about the mental stress of her preparations, he was proud of her commitment and recalled how Marie would have him quiz her from Webster's Dictionary cover to cover.
A parade was held in Cleveland in her honor and she was invited to numerous events over the following days. On July 3, the Erie Daily Times reported on Bolden visiting Erie.
"Marie is a little girl endowed with a wealth of common sense, those who know her state," the Erie Daily Times published, adding that despite winning, she demonstrated only humility and grace. "[M]any Erie people will doubtless endeavor to make the acquaintance of the young scholar."
She stayed as a guest of Mr. and Mrs. Richard Coppar of 305 Chestnut St. in Erie's New Jerusalem neighborhood. She was also the guest of honor at the St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Despite Marie's success and the positive reception that she received at the convention, there was also immediate and fierce backlash. Many white Americans maintained that an integrated spelling bee should never have been permitted in the first place. New Orleans's Picayune newspaper referred to Bolden derogatorily and in published letters to the editor white New Orleanians demanded that the superintendent be fired. The New Orleans school board members were infuriated, passing a resolution condemning the choice to participate, stating that "it is the sense of this board that we deeply deplore and regret the unfortunate occurrence at Cleveland and the pitting of our children against a Negro." They censured superintendent Warren Ellis for being "unwise."
In Thomas K. Black III and Marsha E. Ackermann's 2014 history on American spelling, they quoted a southern newspaper that said Cleveland was as a "Negrophile city … where public schools are mixed … and social equality is taught" and that "Negroes and carpetbaggers" were trying to "force mixed schools" on them. "[It is] not likely that the school children of New Orleans will ever again compete in a northern spelling bee," the article concluded.
A Mississippi newspaper downplayed Bolden's remarkable achievement, insisting that it "was probably an accident pure and simple" that she won. They also said that most northern whites felt the same as southern whites about segregation. "Of course, there, as in every community, are light-headed, addle-brained men and women who, for the sake of fancied notoriety ... advocate social relations between the two races."
In Seattle, a popular Black-owned newspaper satirized this outrage, joking that the "irrepressible, ubiquitous, mysterious Negro has butted in again." They then, more seriously, pointed out that had the competition barred Bolden from competing, then the "championship" wouldn't have been "worthy of the name." They then observed that it was interesting how when Black children were allowed to participate in such events, these students won with increasing frequency.
"It certainly appears that we get our share of the honors considering the number entered into the contests," they wrote. "Let us receive this victory with modesty and with encouragement."
The Black-owned Nashville Globe pointed out that this contest demonstrated "plainer than words" that white southerners devote too much time teaching their children race prejudice. "[L]et it be said that the Negro is going to stick to his purpose and upon the anvil of endeavor is going to hammer out a glorious destiny."
A few months later in New Orleans, the Black YMCA organized a spelling bee at a church in honor of Bolden's accomplishment. They opened it to public and private school students of all races between the fifth and ninth grades. This decision faced hostile backlash from the white school board president and the city's Board of Education, who claimed that the celebration was "an attempt to inflame race prejudice."
"[T]he negroes of New Orleans simply showed their inability to comprehend and appreciate familiar conditions when they issued the ridiculous invitation," a newspaper editorialized, claiming that the invitation of white students was an insult. "The negroes who signed the invitation have thereby proved the contention of the white south, that the negro is incapable of self-government. These men, supposed to be leaders of their race, should have known existing conditions, but they did not." The paper further stated that the Black leaders who made the invitation should "vacate the south" and that it "should be made plain so that such stupid instances of self-assertions may not occur again."
The New Orleans mayor refused to issue a permit for the spelling bee. He demanded a squad of policemen go to prevent it, stating that it would cause a "race riot," a common euphemism of the time for when whites would violently invade and attack Black neighborhoods. Lynching was still common. Ultimately, due to threats of violence and promises of "a hot time in old town tonight" if they went through with the event, the spelling bee was called off.
The Erie Daily Times reported on this cancellation, stating that the white residents of Louisiana were "still indignant because New Orleans school children had been compelled to participate with the negro girl at Cleveland." In Milwaukee, a newspaper lambasted these Louisianans as pitiful. "The haughty Caucasian race can not get much glory out of what occurred at New Orleans last night. ... So New Orleans avoided disorder, but ... New Orleans cannot boast very highly of the sense of justice which dwells in the breasts of its white inhabitants."
As for Marie C. Bolden, she continued with her education in Cleveland and although much of her later life is not known, she would occasionally appear in city newspapers for musical performances on stage. She also carried with her the knowledge that, as Booker T. Washington had pointed out the evening of her win, the absurd and racist outrage was because she, a young Black teenage girl from Cleveland, could simply spell better than everyone else.
Jonathan Burdick runs the historical blog Rust & Dirt. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org