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Spelling Superstar Zaila Avant-garde Takes Baton from MacNolia Cox

Akron's 1936 Champ Overcame Racism to Become First Black Spelling Bee Finalist

In the weeks leading up to the final round of the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee, those familiar with the prestigious competition probably expected the title to once again go to an Indian-American youth.

After all, not only did they comprise the majority of this year’s finalists but in recent years, the champions have come from America’s relatively small community of Indian-Americans.

Students of Indian descent have won the competition for the past 12 years.

But like “the little engine that could,” 14-year-old Zaila Avant-garde, an African-American girl from Harvey, Louisiana, defied the odds and took home the gold.

With her recent victory, she became the first Black to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee in the contest’s 96-year history. Besides claiming her place in the record books, she also took home a cash prize of $50,000.  She also serves as the first champion from her home state of Louisiana.

Zaila spelled “murraya” correctly to win the spelling bee – a word which most people have never heard or used in a sentence, much less spelled without error. She said she had practiced for the past two years after tying for 370th place in the 2019 competition.

During an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America” one day after her victory, she told reporters “it felt good to be a winner” before adding that she needed the help of her tutors and “a bit of luck” to win.

“I’m hoping that in a few years I’ll see a whole lot more African-American females, and males too, doing well in the Scripps Spelling Bee,” Zaila said. “You don’t really see too many African Americans doing too well in spelling bees and that’s a bit sad because it’s a really good thing … and kind of is a gate-opener to be interested in education.”

But Zaila has other interests and abilities besides spelling. She’s also a gifted basketball player and has even set several records for dribbling basketballs and recorded in Guinness World Records.

Chaitra Thummala, 12, from San Francisco and Bhavana Madini, 13, from New York City, took second and third place, respectively in the 2021 showdown.

And in another little-known fact, Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica, who won the Bee in 1998, counts as the competition’s first Black champion.

An Often Forgotten History from 1936 

However, while the accolades continue for the young girl, another Black girl, rarely mentioned in Scripps’ stories about previous standout youth, should not be forgotten.

That youth, MacNolia Cox, 13 years old and from Akron, Ohio, bested 50 other children in 1936 for more than 37 rounds before correctly spelling “sciatica” and “volube.” With that, she became one of the first two Black children to earn their way to the National Spelling Bee.

The other youth, 15-year-old Elizabeth Kenney of New Jersey, also qualified for a trip to Washington, D.C. for the finals.

Ironically, when MacNolia and her family arrived in the District, they would be forced to stay in a hotel separate from the other competitors and their families because of segregation.

D. Kevin McNeir – Senior Editor

Dominic Kevin McNeir is an award-winning journalist with more than 25 years of service for the Black Press (NNPA). Prior to moving East to assist his aging parents, the native Detroiter engineered a transformation of The Miami Times resulting in its being named the NNPA’s “Publication of the Year” in 2011 – just one of several dozen industry-related awards he’s earned in his career. He currently serves as senior editor for The Washington Informer. There, in the heart of the U.S. Capitol, he displays a keen insight for developing front-page news as it unfolds within the greater Washington area, capturing the crucial facts and facets of today’s intriguing, political arena. He has degrees from The University of Michigan, Emory University and Princeton Theological Seminary. In 2020, he received First Place for Weekly Newspaper, Commentary & Criticism, Society of Professional Journalists, Washington, D.C. Pro Chapter. Learn more about him at www.dkevinmcneir.com, Facebook – Kevin McNeir, Twitter - @mcneirdk, Linkedin – D. Kevin McNeir or email: mcneirdk@washingtoninformer.com.

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