In 1962, teenager George F. Jackson wrote a letter to President John F. Kennedy with an appeal: “I am a thirteen-year-old colored boy and I like to spell. Do you think you could help me and get the Lynchburg bee opened to all children?”
The long road to the National Spelling Bee has always begun with local contests, often sponsored by a local newspaper. Nine publications, organized by the Louisville, Kentucky Courier-Journal, banded together in 1925 to create the first National Bee in Washington, D.C.
Decades later, George Jackson was protesting the policies of the local newspaper that sponsored the Lynchburg, Virginia contest, which excluded black students from participating in the official local competition — the necessary step that might send a lucky, word-loving Lynchburg child to nationals. There was more at stake than a coveted all-expenses-paid trip to the capital, an expensive set of Encyclopedia Britannica, and a $1,000 cash prize. For local and national civil rights activists, keeping black children from the spoils of spelling fame was an extension of Jim Crow educational policies that should have ended, in theory, with the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
While the Warren Court decided in 1954 that “separate but equal” would no longer be the law of the land, there were still “Negro” schools and white schools educating children across the South less than a decade later. A patchwork of local responses met the desegregation orders that followed the Supreme Court ruling, including deliberate foot-dragging, some real confusion about how to undo what years of white supremacy had wrought in the nation’s schools, and full-throated defiance to educational equity.
In the summer of 1959, when public schools in Prince Edward County — not far from Lynchburg — were ordered to integrate, the local government decided to close their schools instead of integrating them. (They remained closed for more than three years.) The Lynchburg public school system, which educated five thousand white students and a thousand black students, slowly but steadily contemplated its own integration. Lynchburg had been Virginia’s capital for part of the Civil War, and some of the city’s boosters continued to fight Reconstruction-era battles over memory and public space, bragging the city had evaded Union capture during the “War Between the States.” In 1960, six years after the Supreme Court decision, the city finally began to consider concrete plans to integrate—one proposal suggested taking it incrementally, one grade level at a time, until black and white seniors were in high school together.
he National Spelling Bee — at least the finals in Washington — wasn’t formally segregated, and hadn’t been so “long before the Supreme Court decision regarding segregation.” MacNolia Cox, a 13-year-old from Akron, Ohio, is believed to be the first black child to advance to the finals in 1936. According to poet A. Van Jordan, who wrote a book about MacNolia partly based on her mother’s journals, the straight-A student memorized 10,000 words in preparation. Traveling from Ohio, Cox had to board a segregated train to Washington, D.C. She wasn’t lodged with other participants, and when MacNolia arrived at the bee, she was sent to a separate table. During the contest, when she continued to spell words correctly and advanced to the final rounds, she was given a word that wasn’t on the official list: “nemesis.” The young Akron girl who wanted to be a doctor ended her spelling bee run in defeat. MacNolia went on to work as a domestic, like so many African-American women of her time.
The black and white competitors of the 1960s National Spelling Bee stayed in the same hotel — though it’s unclear if they shared rooms — boarded sightseeing buses together, and broke bread together at banquets during a time when Americans had recently watched white Southerners mob the interracial Freedom Rides with vile heckling and unrepentant violence. The complaints against the Lynchburg bee came a few short years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which mandated that public spaces such as hotels, restaurants, and theaters had to open their doors to African-American sleepers, diners, and consumers.
By contrast, the National Spelling Bee appeared to be a feel-good story of meritocracy and sportsmanship, a contest that was unafraid of “social amalgamation.” In the minds of perpetually sex- and race-obsessed minds of some whites, sporadic interracial contact could trigger “social equality,” which meant sex, interracial marriage, the inevitable arrival of biracial children, and nothing less than the catastrophic decline of white civilization. Because who knew what one chance encounter dealing with a black person on an equal playing field could do?
Even as the National Spelling Bee promoted itself as a bastion of progressivism, its rules of “each contest for itself” sounded like a more polite translation of the argument for states rights that retained local (read: white) control. While the National Spelling Bee had an open-door policy, local school systems and newspaper sponsors governed exactly which students would get a crack at the “big dance” in Washington.
Tallahassee Democrat Negro Spelling Bee contestants, 1957. (Florida State Archives)
Indeed, when national NAACP officials investigated how many of the participating sponsors discriminated against black students, they found that the Memphis Press-Scimitar held an annual Shelby County Negro Spelling at Booker T. Washington High School, but barred black participants from the regional qualifier, the pipeline to the Washington finals. The editor of the Tennessee newspaper promised verbally it would “take steps.” (“Whatever that means,” wrote an NAACP official in a February 1962 memo.)
The Memphis approach of sponsoring separate, segregated contests was echoed across dozens of cities, where black spelling contests had been established decades earlier. In 1905, Baltimore community members organized a spelling bee because African-American students weren’t allowed to take part in the white-only competition. The mayor showed up to the festivities and a black businessman made sure that the top prize was an exact replica of the trophy awarded in the white competition. (Similarly, in Birmingham, Alabama, black insurance broker and hotelier A.G. Gaston filled the void by personally bankrolling a statewide Black spelling bee beginning in 1954.) By all accounts, these segregated black-only bees appear to not have been eligible as qualifiers for to the national bee. But that didn’t stop problems when white Southern students traveled to Northern bees where they encountered black students who sometimes outspelled them.
In 1908, readers of New Orleans’ largest newspaper, the Picayune, were apoplectic when a spelling delegation traveled to a National Education Association bee in Cleveland, Ohio. When the Louisiana spellers came in third behind Marie Bolden, a 13-year-old black girl, the Picayune’s pundits suggested the New Orleans competitors had been so distracted by the “dusky maid” that she was able to best them by writing out 400 words correctly and spelling another 100 orally. Before the contest, Louisiana school superintendent Warren Easton consulted with a handful of school board members. His question: What should he do if his students were faced with competing against black students in the Northern city? The reply from a school board member: “Knock the nigger out.”
While George Jackson’s letter to President Kennedy was published in newspaper articles across the country, George remained shut out of the Lynchburg bee. When a New York Times reporter called the school’s chief administrator to cover the controversy, the journalist asked the official to spell “apartheid” — a request denied after a long pause. The school system similarly refused to budge on having an open, integrated spelling bee. Because everybody knows that spelling can be dangerous.