Before a crowd of thousands in Cleveland on June 29, 1908, Marie C. Bolden, 14, defied the odds and won what is believed to be the first national spelling bee competition. She was the only Black participant.
She was named the individual champion and helped lead her Cleveland classmates to the team championship, but her success at the bee, held during the National Education Association’s annual convention, was met with a racist backlash. Southern newspapers claimed a team from New Orleans had lost because they were unsettled by Ms. Bolden’s presence and the city’s school superintendent vowed his students would never again compete in Northern states.
Children on teams from Pittsburgh and Erie, Pa. — who had initially refused to compete against Ms. Bolden — shook her hand when she won.
“I did not enter the spelling contest for personal glory,” Ms. Bolden, the daughter of a mail carrier, told a reporter from The New York Times as she stepped from the stage. “But to try to help bring honor to my teacher and my school.”
The competition came 17 years before the first Scripps National Spelling Bee in 1925. In the decades that followed, Black students faced discrimination and doubt. Nearly a century later, in June 2021, Zaila Avant-garde, a 14-year-old eighth grader, became the first Black student to win the Scripps competition. The finals of this year’s bee will be held Thursday night.
Ms. Bolden would eventually marry and move to Canada. She never spoke of the victory, and the memory of it was lost, as was the medal she won.
Now, more than a century later, some of her descendants are trying to revive her story and find her lost award.
“I can only speculate as to why she never mentioned it, but I suspect that the experience of going from pride at victory to finding herself in the center of a storm of prejudice must have contributed,” Ms. Bolden’s grandson Mark Brown, a retired schoolteacher in Toronto, said in a statement. “We only started to piece together the details following her death” in 1981, he said.
Her story was recently taken up by researchers from the language learning platform Babbel, who were exploring the history of spelling bees in the United States. While no known images of the medal exist, the organization believes the award is gold, with a clasp or pin, and may be engraved with the words “Champion — American Public School Spellers,” “Cleveland Board Of Education,” or the year 1908. Anyone who finds it, the organization said, should get in touch.
“When our research led us to her story, we couldn’t believe how little-known and under-celebrated it was,” Malcolm Massey, a language expert at the company, said in a statement. Ms. Bolden’s statements at the time, he added, offered clues about her method: “Her parents and friends helped her memorize words, and she read a newspaper each day to perfect her spelling. It’s a blueprint for today’s would-be spelling bee champions.”
Ms. Bolden was an unlikely champion — she ranked last on her team, and could have been replaced as schools across the nation held spelling competitions and vied for a spot in the national championship, which drew teams of eighth-grade students from 34 cities, 510 children in all, according to Cleveland.com.
The four teams in the finals were from Cleveland, Erie, New Orleans and Pittsburgh. The New Orleans team, having learned Ms. Bolden was participating, threatened to withdraw from the competition.
Warren Hicks, the event’s organizer and Cleveland’s assistant superintendent of schools, argued that Ms. Bolden deserved to compete. “This historical event was planned to foster the better teaching of spelling in school, but it resulted in more than that,” he later said. “It demonstrated again that in our schools, every boy and every girl has a fair and even chance.”
To compete, students first took a written spelling test of 100 words. They then spelled 400 words aloud onstage at Cleveland’s Hippodrome Theater, a lavish playhouse that had opened the previous year.
Among the words Ms. Bolden spelled correctly were prejudice, persevere, misspell and embarrass. She earned a perfect score.
But her victory caused rancor among politicians and educators, some of whom refused to accept the result.
On the day of Ms. Bolden’s success, however, the convention was “swept with a storm of applause,” according to an article published in The Oskaloosa Herald, in Iowa. Booker T. Washington, who was born into slavery and later became an educator and political adviser, was in the audience.
According to Babbel, Dr. Washington stepped onstage after the event and noted: “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.”
Derrick Bryson Taylor contributed reporting.
Livia Albeck-Ripka is a reporter for The Times based in California. She was previously a reporter in the Australia bureau. @livia_ar