A Black Girl Wins the 1908 Spelling Bee. Her Family Is Looking For Her Medal.

Before thousands of people in Cleveland on June 29, 1908, 14-year-old Marie C. Bolden defied the odds and won what is believed to be the first national spelling bee competition. He was the only black participant.

He was crowned individual champion and helped lead his Cleveland classmates to a team championship, but his success in the bumblebee, held during the National Education Association's annual convention, was met with racist backlash. The southern newspapers claimed the team from New Orleans had lost because they were unsettled by the presence of Ms. Bolden and the superintendent of the city school vowed his students would never again compete in the Northern states.

Kids on the team from Pittsburgh and Erie, Pa. — who initially refused to fight Ms. Bolden — shook his hand when he won.

“I'm not entering a spelling contest for personal glory,” said Ms. Bolden, daughter of a letter carrier, to a reporter from The New York Times as he stepped off the stage. “But to try to help bring honor to my teachers and my school.”

The competition was held 17 years before the first Scripps National Spelling Bee in 1925. In the decades that followed, black students faced discrimination and skepticism. Nearly a century later, in June 2021, Zaila Avant-garde, a 14-year-old eighth grader, became the first black student to win a Scripps competition. This year's bee finale will be held Thursday night.

Ms Bolden would eventually marry and move to Canada. He never talks about winning, and his memory is gone, as are the medals he won.

Now, more than a century later, some of his descendants are trying to revive his story and find his lost credit.

“I can only speculate as to why he never mentioned it but I suspect that the experience of going from the pride of victory to finding himself in the middle of a storm of prejudice must have contributed,” Ms. Bolden, Mark Brown, a retired schoolteacher in Toronto, said in a statement. “We only started working out the details after his death” in 1981, he said.

Her story was recently picked up by researchers from language-learning platform Babbel, which explores the history of spelled bees in the United States. While there is no known image of the medal, 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. found it, the organization said, should contact him.

“When our research led us to its story, we couldn't believe how little was known and under-celebrated,” said Malcolm Massey, linguist at the company, in a statement. Ms statement Bolden at the time, he added, gave some pointers on his method: “His parents and friends helped him memorize words, and he read the newspaper every day to perfect his spelling. This is the blueprint for today's future spelling bee champion.”

Ms. Bolden is an unlikely champion — he ranks last on his team, and could be replaced as schools around the nation hold spelling competitions and vie for spots in the national championship, which attracts teams of eighth graders from 34 cities, 510 kids in all. , according to Cleveland.com.

The four teams in the finals were from Cleveland, Erie, New Orleans, and Pittsburgh. The New Orleans team, after finding out Ms. Bolden participates, threatening to withdraw from the competition.

Warren Hicks, event organizer and assistant superintendent of Cleveland schools, thinks that Ms. Bolden deserves to compete. “This historic event was planned to encourage better teaching of spelling in schools, but the result was more than that,” he said later. “It shows again that in our school every boy and girl has a fair and equal opportunity.”

To compete, students first take a written spelling test of 100 words. They then spelled 400 words out loud on the stage of the Cleveland Hippodrome Theatre, a lavish playhouse that had opened the previous year.

Among the words that Ms. Bolden is rightfully prejudiced, defensive, misspelled, and shaming. He got a perfect score.

But his victory caused resentment among politicians and educators, some of whom refused to accept the results.

However, on the day of Ms. Bolden, the convention was “filled with a standing ovation”, according to an article published in 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 onto the stage after the event and noted: “You will admit we spelled from the same spell book that you did. And I think you'll also admit that we spell a little bit better.

Derrick Bryson Taylor reporting contribution.