So you heard about Zaila Avant-garde winning the National Spelling Bee — the first Black girl to do so at the Scripps event. The truly avant-garde girl, 14, caused a sensation.
But have you heard of Marie Bolden winning the very first National Spelling Bee in 1908? The dignified Black girl from Cleveland caused a stir in America. The news traveled to African tribes.
Zaila and Marie hold the same place in American history: advancement through spelling. There’s nothing more American than a spelling bee. All have “a fair and even chance,” as my great-grandfather put it.
Out on the prairie, spelling bees were good fun. In cities, they helped to Americanize English. I love them, an inherited trait.
Five hundred schoolchildren landed in Cleveland in summer to compete, representing 34 cities like Boston, Buffalo and New Orleans. They went boating on Lake Erie, as pictured in The Plain Dealer. Civic pride ran high.
City teams were invited by my great-grandfather, Warren E. Hicks, to “bee” the stars at the Hippodrome’s grand opening.
It was a wonderful way to show off Cleveland, the fifth largest city in the U.S., with its thriving immigrant enclaves from Germany, Poland and Russia.
Hicks was the assistant superintendent of schools. A jaunty man in his 40s, he loved putting on a big showcase for public schools. He was a storyteller in speeches, and I have a recording of him telling this tale.
But a problem rocked Cleveland. New Orleans teachers spied a “colored girl” on the host team, Marie. They threatened to boycott the bee. They were favored to win, the Southern girls and one boy.
Jim Crow was alive and kicking in 1908. Lynchings were rising. Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case that struck down public school segregation, was decades down the line.
The New Orleans teachers declared they didn’t take pupils on the train up North to “compete with the colored.” That was against their school creed. Racial mixing was against the law where they came from.
The tempest created a crisis for Hicks and Cleveland. Teachers were converging for a convention. The mayor and John D. Rockefeller were invited to the Euclid Avenue spectacle.
Booker T. Washington, the great educator, was to give a keynote address to teachers.
Hicks and his boss met with the New Orleans teachers. As he said, “We held out our friendly hand.” Marie earned her place on the squad — in last place.
The Hough School girl would stay in the first National Spelling Bee. Hicks pressed New Orleans to stay and spell that Saturday in the first National Spelling Bee.
And they did. All went well. The words are saved in my great-grandfather’s champion spelling book. As a little girl I met merry Warren at his 100th birthday party.
What makes me proud: it’s a story of race in the Midwest, not the usual North versus South trope. They did the right thing in 1908 without making a mountain of it.
Ohio’s actions on opposing slavery were first-rate and fierce. Cleveland’s Old Stone Church bells rang out when slavecatchers hit town, a code to fugitive slaves to hide.
Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive presidency boosted nation building and morale. America was buoyant.
But for Black Americans, the era was far from rosy. The NAACP was founded in 1909 to help right the world of wrongs being done against them.
Marie’s father worked for the post office, a rare avenue of advancement that was open to Black citizens at that time.
The story arc is in the Hicks telling. From last place on her city team, Marie won the whole thing onstage, and didn’t miss a word. She went from studying night and day to a standing ovation in the Hippodrome.
Even the New Orleans girls cheered for the girl born just 30 years after American slavery, within living memory.
My sister and I wrote about this remarkable event after a visit to Cleveland. We located Marie’s daughter, with her beautiful old-lace handwriting.
The cut to exclude her on the basis of race galvanized Marie. She later moved to Canada and became a teacher.
Zaila has large ambitions and scholarship offers. She was a national media darling. And she comes from New Orleans.
History rhymes again.