So you’ve heard of Zaila Vanguard winning the National Spelling Bee – the first black girl to do so at the Scripps event. The truly avant-garde 14-year-old created a sensation.
But have you heard of Marie Bolden winning the very first national spelling competition in 1908? The worthy black girl from Cleveland caused a sensation in America. The news has traveled to African tribes.
Zaila and Marie occupy the same place in American history: advancement through spelling. There is nothing more American than a spelling contest. Everyone has “a fair and equal chance,” as my great-grandfather said.
In the meadow, the spelling bees were a lot of fun. In the cities, they helped Americanize English. I love them, an inherited trait.
Five hundred school children came to Cleveland in the 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 was at its height.
The city teams were invited by my great-grandfather, Warren E. Hicks, to “bee” the stars at the Racecourse opening.
It was a wonderful way to show Cleveland, the fifth largest city in the United States, with its thriving immigrant enclaves from Germany, Poland and Russia.
Hicks was the deputy superintendent of schools. A casual man in his forties, he loved to make a large display case for public schools. He was a speech storyteller, and I have a recording of him telling this story.
But a problem rocked Cleveland. New Orleans teachers spotted a “colored girl” on the host team, Marie. They threatened to boycott the bee. They were the favorites to win, the Southern girls and a boy.
Jim Crow was alive in 1908. Lynchings were increasing. Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case that overturned segregation in public schools, has gone on for decades.
Teachers in New Orleans said they were not taking students on the Northern Train to “compete with the mestizos.” It was against their school creed. The racial mixture was against the law from which they came.
The storm created a crisis for Hicks and Cleveland. The teachers converged for a convention. The Mayor and John D. Rockefeller were invited to the Euclid Avenue show.
Booker T. Washington, the great educator, was to give an opening speech to the teachers.
Hicks and his boss met with teachers in New Orleans. As he said, “We extended our friendly hand.” Marie earned her place in the team – in last place.
The Hough school girl would stay in the first National Spelling Bee. Hicks urged New Orleans to stay and spell this Saturday in the first National Spelling Bee.
And they did. Everything was fine. The words are recorded in my great-grandfather’s champion spelling book. As a little girl, I met happy Warren on his 100th birthday.
What makes me proud: It’s a Midwestern racing story, not the usual North vs. South trope. They did the right thing in 1908 without making a mountain of it.
Ohio’s actions against slavery were first-rate and fierce. The bells of Cleveland’s old stone church rang when slave hunters struck the town, a code for runaway slaves to hide.
Theodore Roosevelt’s progressive presidency has boosted nation-building and morale. America was dynamic.
But for black Americans, the times were far from rosy. The NAACP was founded in 1909 to help right the world from the wrongs done to them.
Marie’s father worked for the post office, a rare avenue of advancement that was then open to black citizens.
The arc of the story is in Hicks’ narrative. From the last place of her team in the city, Marie won everything on stage and did not miss a word. She went from studying night and day to a standing ovation at the Hippodrome.
Even the girls of New Orleans applauded the girl born just 30 years after American slavery, living memory.
My sister and I wrote about this remarkable event after a visit to Cleveland. We have located Mary’s daughter, with her beautiful old-fashioned handwriting.
Cutting to exclude her on the basis of race galvanized Marie. She then moved to Canada and became a teacher.
Zaila has big ambitions and scholarship offers. She was the darling of the national media. And she’s from New Orleans.
History rhymes again.
Jamie Stiehm’s column is distributed by Creators.