Zalia Avant-garde made history this month as the first Black American contestant to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Her victory has not only propelled her into the national spotlight, but it has also highlighted years of racism that many Black participants have faced in the years leading up to this moment. Most notably, Avant-garde's success has brought the story of MacNolia Cox back to light.
MacNolia Cox was born in 1923 and raised in Akron, Ohio. At the age of 13 years old, the eighth-grade student participated in the 1936 Akron Spelling Bee at the Akron Armory. Over the course of 2.5 hours, the young, Black scholar outlasted the competition to become the first Black teen to win the Akron Spelling Bee. In addition to taking home first place honors, Cox also took home $25 and a ticket to Washington, D.C. for the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
"I'm glad I won, and I hope I win in Washington," Cox told the Akron Beacon Journal.
Cox quickly received the support of her community and those in neighboring states. Black residents of Akron put together $9 for her "wardrobe fund" and former Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute President F.D. Patterson wished her well.
"We wish her every success in the world in the national contest," Patterson said.
The uphill battle that Cox faced began on her journey to the nation's capital. At the Maryland state line, Cox, her mother, teacher and a local reporter were moved to a segregated train car. After arriving in Washington, D.C., Cox and her guests were forced to stay in a segregated hotel as well. Topping it all off, Cox and her family were asked to enter through the stairwell instead of the elevator and she was forced to sit in a different area during the competition.
Despite the racism she faced, Cox performed exceptionally well on the nation's toughest stage. With only five competitors remaining in the competition, the Akron native stepped up to the microphone to spell a word. In response, the judges asked her to spell the word "nemesis." At the time, "Nemesis," the name of the goddess of revenge, was capitalized in the dictionary and capitalized words were barred from competition. Taken aback by the word choice, Cox misspelled the word and was knocked out of the competition. Immediately after she was eliminated, the local reporter that had traveled with Cox and her mother staged a protest. Ultimately, his efforts were struck down and Cox was sent home without an opportunity to move on to the final rounds.
While she took home $75, the conclusion of her historic run was marred by racism. Fortunately, the obstacles she overcame paved the way for Avant-garde and Jodey-Anne Maxwell, the only two Black girls to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee.