Before Zaila Avant-garde twirled her way into our hearts as the first Black American student to win the National Spelling Bee, she found inspiration from Akron’s own MacNolia Cox. In 1936, Cox, an eighth-grader at Colonial School, defeated the best spellers in six counties to win the Akron Beacon Journal Spelling Bee. Her victory at the Armory in front of a crowd of 3,000 earned Cox $25 and a spot at the national competition in Washington, D.C.
Pride swelled for the young Akron girl, whose achievement made her one of the first Black students to make it to the national competition. Thousands attended her sendoff at the Union Depot, where a band played in her honor, and Cox commented, “This is the most fun I’ve ever had in my life.” As the train entered Maryland, Cox and her mother were moved to a Black-only car and upon arrival in Washington, stayed with the family of a Black doctor, rather than at the hotel with fellow competitors. At a banquet honoring the nation’s best spellers, Cox was forced to sit apart from her peers, and she and her mother were prohibited from taking the elevator.
During the competition, Cox remained confident, spelling word after word correctly and making it to the final five. She had studied the list of 100,000 approved words diligently but was eliminated after misspelling a word not on the approved list. Akron Beacon Journal writer Mabel Norris, who accompanied MacNolia and her mother to Washington, protested the unapproved word immediately, but judges upheld her elimination. Cox returned to Akron with $75, greeted by a parade and congratulatory speeches from local dignitaries.
Though brimming with potential, MacNolia never graduated high school, becoming a young wife and mother and making ends meet as a domestic worker. She passed away in 1976 at the age of 53. Her life, according to family and friends, was full of struggles that belied the promise of the bright young girl. An account of her life, Whatever happened to MacNolia Cox?, was published in 2008 by her niece Georgia Lee Gay. M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A, a book of poems inspired by her life, was written by A. Van Jordan in 2004.
Renewed interest in her story, both locally and nationally, follows on the heels of Zaila Avant-garde’s historic victory – Avant-garde commenting that she remembered the story of MacNolia Cox as she became the first African American champion of the National Spelling Bee.
Rebecca Larson-Troyer, Librarian, Special Collections Division