Culture  /  Narrative

The Word Is ‘Nemesis’: The Fight to Integrate the National Spelling Bee

For talented black spellers in the 1960s, the segregated local spelling bee was the beginning of the long road to Washington, D.C.
State Archives of Florida

The National Spelling Bee — at least the finals in Washington — wasn’t formally segregated, and hadn’t been so “long before the Supreme Court decision regarding segregation.” MacNolia Cox, a 13-year-old from Akron, Ohio, is believed to be the first black child to advance to the finals in 1936. According to poet A. Van Jordan, who wrote a book about MacNolia partly based on her mother’s journals, the straight-A student memorized 10,000 words in preparation. Traveling from Ohio, Cox had to board a segregated train to Washington, D.C. She wasn’t lodged with other participants, and when MacNolia arrived at the bee, she was sent to a separate table. During the contest, when she continued to spell words correctly and advanced to the final rounds, she was given a word that wasn’t on the official list: “nemesis.” The young Akron girl who wanted to be a doctor ended her spelling bee run in defeat. MacNolia went on to work as a domestic, like so many African-American women of her time.

The black and white competitors of the 1960s National Spelling Bee stayed in the same hotel — though it’s unclear if they shared rooms — boarded sightseeing buses together, and broke bread together at banquets during a time when Americans had recently watched white Southerners mob the interracial Freedom Rides with vile heckling and unrepentant violence. The complaints against the Lynchburg bee came a few short years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which mandated that public spaces such as hotels, restaurants, and theaters had to open their doors to African-American sleepers, diners, and consumers.

By contrast, the National Spelling Bee appeared to be a feel-good story of meritocracy and sportsmanship, a contest that was unafraid of “social amalgamation.” In the minds of perpetually sex- and race-obsessed minds of some whites, sporadic interracial contact could trigger “social equality,” which meant sex, interracial marriage, the inevitable arrival of biracial children, and nothing less than the catastrophic decline of white civilization. Because who knew what one chance encounter dealing with a black person on an equal playing field could do?

Even as the National Spelling Bee promoted itself as a bastion of progressivism, its rules of “each contest for itself” sounded like a more polite translation of the argument for states rights that retained local (read: white) control.

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