Cynthia R. Greenlee | Longreads | June 2017 | 2,900 words ( 12 minutes)
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.
A year before the city opened the doors of E.C. Glass High School to black students, the policy of the spelling-bee sponsor, the Lynchburg News, threatened to roil an already fraught racial climate. The newspaper ducked the federal mandate for fairness by cloaking racism as a private business matter, arguing for “tradition.” Lynchburg’s spelling bee controversy was past, present, and prologue rolled into a single, contentious conflict. It pointed back to Jim Crow and demonstrated the small ways that segregation could still thrive, even after it had been ruled unconstitutional by the nation’s highest court.
The Lynchburg spelling bee’s separate and unequal practices came to light through a timely clerical error. Just before Christmas 1961, principals and teachers of fifth through eighth grade students in black schools received a document that outlined the rules for the Lynchburg spelling bee. After the holiday, when school reconvened, the document was retracted. “Spelling test materials were distributed to Negro schools through the error of a new secretary in the office of a city school supervisor … Negro participation is not expected.” A green employee may not have known the lay of the land when it came to spelling bee policy, but Lynchburg’s black educators, students, and families were surely aware the courteous un-invitation was a statement that the local spelling bee that had served whites only since the 1940s would continue to do so.
Lynchburg NAACP President W.T. Johnson sent a letter to the bee’s national sponsor, the Scripps-Howard Newspaper Alliance, laying out the facts and closing with a one-two punch. Of course, Johnson demurred, the Lynchburg branch of the civil rights organization did not “want to believe that the Scripps-Howard Newspaper Alliance would wish to become involved in a segregated Spelling Contest … we are certain that holding the finals of a Jim Crow contest in Washington would be courting disaster.” Understanding the power of public shaming and building off the Brown v. Board of Education victory — which had marshaled evidence that segregation was harmful to black children — Johnson followed with the explicit threat of “possible legal action and publicity in Washington and elsewhere.”
The NAACP’s team of lawyers and nationwide army of activists were not to be trifled with. Since its founding in 1909, the group had protested the release of Birth of a Nation, blocked a Supreme Court nomination, pressured President Harry Truman to ban discrimination in federal employment, and launched dozens of legal challenges to the many-headed hydra of segregation. They would picket on street corners and petition in courtrooms. The Scripps alliance, one of the nation’s powerhouse publishers, worked to quell the damage for their premier event, but its response varied from no-nonsense to irritated.
Responding to the NAACP, National Spelling Bee Director James Wagner fired back that “some of the statements indicate you are being misled, or are ignoring the facts insofar as the conduct of the National Spelling Bee … a program that has enjoyed the respect of the public and educators alike since 1925.” He explained that each participating newspaper “determines its own rules and procedures, and otherwise operates completely independently.” But Wagner refused to identify all newspaper sponsors —including 50 that weren’t Scripps newspapers — and said the only rules regarding the spellers themselves was that they had to be of appropriate age and grade. Wagner clarified the national contest’s nondiscrimination policy. He noted that several black students had competed in the national bee in recent years and had performed well.
The 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.
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.”
The fallout from the spellers’ defeat by a young black Ohioan continued in vitriolic letters to the editor, some of them strident cries that the superintendent should be fired for putting white students in the inappropriate position of competing with black students. The flap revealed white Southerners’ deep commitment to the hard work of maintaining white supremacy. It exposed, in stark terms, the danger of interracial spelling bees: A mundane contest that happened in schools everywhere, the spelling bee was a merit test that could provide evidence that African-Americans’ memories and intellectual prowess rivaled, or even exceeded, the smarts of their white neighbors.
“Certainly in the days following the National Spelling Contest, the race problem was in evidence, if it ever was, in New Orleans and the South!” wrote a New Orleans clergyman about the fracas over the spellers’ brush with Marie Bolden. “Did it show itself, then as a problem of Negro crime, or brutality, or laziness? Assuredly not! Of the Negro’s personal repulsiveness? By no means! There is no evidence of Negro criminality, or brutality, or laziness, in the Negro child’s victory. … The ‘intense feeling’ can be explained on one ground only: the Negro girl’s victory was an affront to the tradition of Negro inferiority.”
With its notion of meritocracy, the spelling bee was innocuous and purposeful — clean educational fun for all. But it also suggested that black Americans could be “improved” by educational opportunity — and sometimes outpace whites along the way. When 12-year old Gloria Lockerman, described by Jet as a “fat-cheeked, blasé little girl from Baltimore” and “television’s million-dollar baby,” appeared on The $64,000 Question game show four times in 1955, she wowed audiences by spelling a tongue-twisting sentence —“The belligerent astigmatic anthropologist annihilated innumerable chrysanthemums”— and won $16,000 for her college education. A pickle company gave her a lifetime supply of her favorite treat, and she made the rounds on TV variety and talk shows. In a later moment of racist candor, one of the show’s writers described her as “Cinderella in blackface.”
A few years later, allegations surfaced that the $64 ,000 Question was rigged and that the youthful spellers (not just Gloria) who delighted TV viewers were given a word list and coached. An English professor from Northwestern who wrote for the show explained he would only ask Lockerman words she could spell, or that were seemly. “We discarded words like ‘nephrectomy,’ for instance, because it wouldn’t do to have a little girl talk about a kidney operation. Similarly we wouldn’t use a world like ‘niggardly’ because some viewers might think it had something to do with ‘nigger.’” Gloria’s victory, her detractors suggested, was a fraud, though show producers conceded she was an exceptional speller, coached or not. During the investigation, Gloria was a 16-year-old college freshman at Morgan State University. When media sought her out on campus, she ran from a journalist, screaming, “I’m not saying a word!” and reportedly had to be quieted with sedatives.
What a hard, heavy weight for black children to bear, to be the person who literally spelled trouble for white supremacy.
Black leaders, educators, and activists valued the spelling bee as proof positive their children were just as capable and gifted as white pupils. National magazines like Jet and the NAACP’s Crisis continually shared celebratory notes of black children’s achievements, pointing out that middle-class African-American youth could play piano sonatas, recite Latin oratory, and spell as well as anyone else.
Months after the NAACP began agitating for equity in the qualifying rounds to the national bee, Jocelyn Lee, a 12-year-old seventh grader at Tulsa’s Marian Anderson High, became the first black winner in the Oklahoma City bee’s 25-year history. In 1965, the April issue of Jet showed 15-year-old Clorrine Jones, wearing a smile, a glistening beehive, a checked jumper, and a banner—the winner of Memphis’ first integrated spelling bee, three years after NAACP officials had blown the whistle on the segregated local contests. She won in the last round with the word “campanile.”
Adolescent spelling bee champions like Lee and Jones were pioneers of desegregation, even if they never attended truly integrated schools. They were descendants of enslaved people for whom literacy was forbidden, and whose educational institutions were built from the ground up with community support. It was no coincidence that one of writer Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s most popular poems was “The Spellin’ Bee” (1913). Written in dialect, the poem follows the drama of a black church spelling bee, complete with flirting, finery, and a narrator who throws the contest so his sweetheart can win. There are lawyers, the shabbily dressed, a pastor whose “speeches were too long fur toleration,” farmer’s daughters, and the everyday laborer like Ole Hiram who was disqualified for bungling the word “charity.” But all were united in the quest for community, and a coveted spelling book:
The master rose an’ briefly said: “Good friends, dear brother Crawford,
To spur the pupils’ minds along, a little prize has offered.
To him who spells the best to–night—or ’t may be ‘her’—no tellin’—
He offers ez a jest reward, this precious work on spellin’.”
A little blue–backed spellin’–book with fancy scarlet trimmin’;
We boys devoured it with our eyes—so did the girls an’ women.
He held it up where all could see, then on the table set it,
An’ ev’ry speller in the house felt mortal bound to get it.
The vision of an entire town turning out in pursuit of a spelling book is quite a different picture of community that that described in the 2006 film Akeelah and Bee, the fictional story of an 11-year-old girl whose family and friends largely don’t understand her quest for learning. This is a modern misunderstanding — historically, African-Americans have understood the spelling bee as a contested racial space, where mastering a word list was a feat of skill, motivation, and racial resistance through direct competition with one’s “social betters.” If black spellers weren’t actually sparring with white rivals, each word memorized—the letters, language of origin, possible meanings—was another symbolic brick building a black community hungry for the book-learning denied to them in slavery and segregation.
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.
Dr. Cynthia R. Greenlee is a historian who specializes in African-American and Southern history. She is also senior editor at Rewire. You can find more of her work at Echoing Ida and follow her on Twitter @CynthiaGreenlee.