Courtesy of the Brown family
If you haven’t heard of the black girl who won the first national spelling bee in the United States 115 years ago, you’re not alone: Many in her family also didn’t know about Marie C. Bolden’s feat until after her death. decades later.
« It’s amazing to me » that he never talked about winning a gold medal in front of thousands of people, Bolden’s nephew Mark Brown told NPR.
But in 1908, Bolden’s victory made national news and overturned racist stereotypes, less than 50 years after the Civil War. The 14-year-old did it by being perfect, writing 500 words flawlessly to lead her hometown Cleveland, Ohio team to victory at the city’s then-new Hippodrome Theater.
« He never talked about this award, this amazing achievement, » Brown said. But Booker T. Washington also mentioned [it] in his speeches ».
Bolden’s win was a national sensation
Boleden’s victory was dramatic and unprecedented: The Cleveland team trailed a field that included teams from New Orleans, Pittsburgh, and Erie, Pennsylvania late in the contest, according to contemporary accounts. But then Bolden led his team to the grand prize.
He never showed off the gold medal he won — in fact, his family isn’t sure what became of it — but in interviews following his win, Bolden told reporters he had studied hard for the competition, saying that he wanted to help his city win, and that his mother and father wanted him to win.
“When I felt nervous at the Racecourse, it stabilized me thinking about these things,” she was quoted as saying The simple merchant. « I just gritted my teeth and decided I wasn’t going to miss a word. »
It was only after Bolden’s death that his family realized his place in history. Examining a box of his belongings, Brown says, they found a newspaper clipping The simple merchant telling the story of the black postman’s daughter who wrote better than hundreds of white children.
Following her stunning win, Bolden was met with « a storm of applause » and congratulations from hundreds of people, including members of the New Orleans team, according to Indiana’s South Bend Grandstand.
Bolden’s story has only surfaced in recent years
Cleveland hosted the spelling contest in June 1908, using it as a flagship event to kick off the National Education Association conference. The contest is recognized as the first nationwide spelling bee by Guinness World Record – which also takes over the role of Bolden.
The famed Scripps National Spelling Bee, which began in 1925, held its finals this week. Bolden’s accomplishment attracted renewed attention in 2021 when Zaila Avant-garde became the first African-American to win the Scripps contest.
Bolden’s story then attracted the interest of Chatthe language-learning software company, which contacted Brown after researching his grandmother’s win.
« Her parents and friends helped her memorize words, and she read a newspaper every day to perfect her spelling, » said Malcolm Massey, a Babbel language expert. « It’s a blueprint for today’s aspiring Spelling Bee champions. »
The 1908 bee also became a magnet for racism
Marie Bolden knew prejudice well; in fact, she was one of the competing words was asked to write. Its spelling rivals included a team from New Orleans, a team that almost didn’t compete at all, as its segregationist leaders objected to including a black student.
New Orleans officials knew there was a possibility that an integrated team could compete in the spelling bee. AS NOLA.com reportedwhen a member of the school board considered how the team might respond under such circumstances, he replied, « Go ahead and knock the niggers out. »
Of such sentiments, Brown says, « It’s like, damn it, these are kids. What are you doing? » He added, « It’s hard to understand now that people would be treated like that. »
After Bolden’s victory, furious members of the New Orleans school board voted to censure its superintendent, Warren Easton. Like the black newspaper The Seattle Republican the board reportedly passed a resolution stating in part, « we deeply regret and regret the unfortunate event in Cleveland and pitting our children against a Negro. »
Weeks later, black New Orleans residents were to host a spelling bee in Bolden’s honor, but the mayor ordered it cancelled.
The treatment of black people in the United States ultimately prompted Bolden and his family to move to Canada, Brown said. That process began with his grandfather telling his father to fight for Canada in World War II, rather than the United States, « because they didn’t treat black soldiers very well, » Brown said.
Brown, 68, currently lives just outside of Hamilton, Ontario. As for how his family now views Bolden, who died in 1981, Brown said his adult daughters, Jackie and Stacey, are « amazed by the strength of their great-grandmother. »
« I think there’s a great sense of pride that our family history is based on sacrifice and people who are adventurous, who take on a new life and don’t let things hold them back. »