A Black Lady Received the 1908 Spelling Bee. Her Household Is Trying to find Her Medal.


Earlier than a crowd of 1000’s in Cleveland on June 29, 1908, Marie C. Bolden, 14, defied the percentages and received what’s believed to be the primary nationwide spelling bee competitors. She was the one Black participant.

She was named the person champion and helped lead her Cleveland classmates to the staff championship, however her success on the bee, held throughout the Nationwide Schooling Affiliation’s annual conference, was met with a racist backlash. Southern newspapers claimed a staff from New Orleans had misplaced as a result of they had been unsettled by Ms. Bolden’s presence and town’s faculty superintendent vowed his college students would by no means once more compete in Northern states.

Kids on groups from Pittsburgh and Erie, Pa. — who had initially refused to compete in opposition to Ms. Bolden — shook her hand when she received.

“I didn’t enter the spelling contest for private glory,” Ms. Bolden, the daughter of a mail provider, instructed a reporter from The New York Times as she stepped from the stage. “However to attempt to assist deliver honor to my instructor and my faculty.”

The competitors got here 17 years earlier than the primary Scripps Nationwide Spelling Bee in 1925. Within the many years that adopted, Black college students confronted discrimination and doubt. Almost a century later, in June 2021, Zaila Avant-garde, a 14-year-old eighth grader, turned the primary Black scholar to win the Scripps competitors. The finals of this 12 months’s bee will be held Thursday night.

Ms. Bolden would finally marry and transfer to Canada. She by no means spoke of the victory, and the reminiscence of it was misplaced, as was the medal she received.

Now, greater than a century later, a few of her descendants try to revive her story and discover her misplaced award.

“I can solely speculate as to why she by no means talked about it, however I think that the expertise of going from satisfaction at victory to discovering herself within the heart of a storm of prejudice will need to have contributed,” Ms. Bolden’s grandson Mark Brown, a retired schoolteacher in Toronto, stated in a press release. “We solely began to piece collectively the main points following her loss of life” in 1981, he stated. 

Her story was lately taken up by researchers from the language studying platform Babbel, who had been exploring the historical past of spelling bees in the USA. Whereas no recognized photographs of the medal exist, the group believes the award is gold, with a clasp or pin, and could also be engraved with the phrases “Champion — American Public Faculty Spellers,” “Cleveland Board Of Schooling,” or the 12 months 1908. Anybody who finds it, the group stated, ought to get in contact.

“When our analysis led us to her story, we couldn’t consider how little-known and under-celebrated it was,” Malcolm Massey, a language knowledgeable on the firm, stated in a press release. Ms. Bolden’s statements on the time, he added, supplied clues about her technique: “Her mother and father and associates helped her memorize phrases, and he or she learn a newspaper every day to good her spelling. It’s a blueprint for immediately’s would-be spelling bee champions.”

Ms. Bolden was an unlikely champion — she ranked final on her staff, and will have been changed as colleges throughout the nation held spelling competitions and vied for a spot within the nationwide championship, which drew groups of eighth-grade college students from 34 cities, 510 kids in all, in response to

The 4 groups within the finals had been from Cleveland, Erie, New Orleans and Pittsburgh. The New Orleans staff, having realized Ms. Bolden was collaborating, threatened to withdraw from the competitors.

Warren Hicks, the occasion’s organizer and Cleveland’s assistant superintendent of faculties, argued that Ms. Bolden deserved to compete. “This historic occasion was deliberate to foster the higher educating of spelling at school, nevertheless it resulted in additional than that,” he later stated. “It demonstrated once more that in our colleges, each boy and each lady has a good and even probability.”

To compete, college students first took a written spelling take a look at of 100 phrases. They then spelled 400 phrases aloud onstage at Cleveland’s Hippodrome Theater, a lavish playhouse that had opened the earlier 12 months.

Among the many phrases Ms. Bolden spelled accurately had been prejudice, persevere, misspell and embarrass. She earned an ideal rating.

However her victory brought on rancor amongst politicians and educators, a few of whom refused to simply accept the consequence.

On the day of Ms. Bolden’s success, nonetheless, the conference was “swept with a storm of applause,” in response to an article revealed in The Oskaloosa Herald, in Iowa. Booker T. Washington, who was born into slavery and later turned an educator and political adviser, was within the viewers.

In line with Babbel, Dr. Washington stepped onstage after the occasion and famous: “You’ll admit that we spell out of the identical spelling ebook that you just do. And I feel additionally, you will admit that we spell somewhat higher.”

Derrick Bryson Taylor contributed reporting.


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