Magnolia Cox

In the Mix

MacNolia Cox won the Akron District Spelling Bee, and at the age of 13 she became the first African American to reach the final round of the national competition.

MacNolia Cox, a 13-year-old spelling champ from Akron, Ohio, met the composer Fats Waller, left, and Bill Robinson — better known as Bojangles — on May 4, 1936, at the RKO Palace Theater in Cleveland.Credit…The Akron Beacon

The 12th National Spelling Bee was held in Washington, D.C. on May 26, 1936, at the National MuseumScripps-Howard did not sponsor the Bee until 1941.

12th National Spelling Bee
DateMay 26, 1936
LocationNational Museum in Washington, D.C.
WinnerJean Trowbridge
ResidenceStuart, Iowa
SponsorThe Des Moines Register and Tribune
Sponsor locationDes Moines, Iowa
Winning wordeczema
No. of contestants17
PronouncerH.E. Warner and Harold F. Harding[1]
Preceded by11th Scripps National Spelling Bee
Followed by13th Scripps National Spelling Bee

The winner was Jean Trowbridge, age 13, of Stuart, Iowa,[2] with the word eczema. Thirteen-year-old Bruce Ackerman, of Tazewell County, Illinois, who took 3rd the prior year, came in second. Catherine Davis, 13, of Indiana took third, falling on “shrieking”.[3][4]

In the final rounds, Trowbridge was first disqualified for “numskull”, which Ackerman then spelled as “numbskull” followed by “gnome” for the apparent win. The judges then realized that “numskull” was an acceptable spelling, and the contest continued. Ackerman misspelled “predilection” a few words later, which Trowbridge spelled correctly followed by “eczema” for the win.[4]

The final hour of the competition was broadcast on radio on the Columbia broadcasting system.[5]

As of 2014, winner Jean Trowbridge (married name Tyler) was living in Grand Junction, Colorado.[6]

First Black finalists

MacNolia Cox, a 13-year-old girl from Akron,[7] and Elizabeth Kenny, a 15 year old from Plainfield, New Jersey, were the first African-American children to compete as finalists in the National Spelling Bee—and Cox made it to the final five.

Due to segregation, Cox had to move into a black-only train car when she crossed into Maryland, and was unable to stay at the Willard Hotel with the other spellers. Cox and her mother were also placed at a separate table at the contestants banquet.[8] Cox was eliminated on the word “nemesis”, and her schoolteacher and newspaper sponsor representative both protested the word as being a proper noun (Nemesis being a Greek goddess of retribution). However, the protest was denied as the word can also be used as a common noun. It’s important to note that she did spell the word “Nemnesis”.[9] Some have since suggested that Cox was intentionally given an unapproved word (a capitalized word); any claims of racial bias were denied at the time, but are not surprising considering the segregated treatment that she received.[10][11]

The Southern judges, it is thought, kept her from winning by presenting a word not on the official list. The word that tripped MacNolia, ironically, was “nemesis.” When she died 40 years later, the girl who “was almost/ The national spelling champ” had become a cleaning woman, a grandmother, and “the best damn maid in town.” Cox’s ambition and her later frustration find incisive shape in this remarkably varied meditation on ambition, racism, discouragement and ennui, where successive pages can bring to mind a handbook of poetic forms (a double sestina, Japanese-inspired syllabics, a blues ghazal and prose poems based on definitions of prepositions), Ann Carson’s “TV Men” poems, Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah and the documentary film Spellbound. Jordan (Rise) begins in Cox’s later life, giving voice to her husband, John Montiere, at “The Moment Before He Asks MacNolia Out on a Date,” then to MacNolia herself when in 1970 her son dies just after his return from Vietnam. As counterpoints, Jordan intersperses poems about African-Americans who won more lasting public acclaim, among them Richard Pryor, Josephine Baker and the great labor organizer and orator A. Philip Randolph. Jordan’s most quotable poems, however, return to the voice of the 13-year-old speller, who “learned the word chiaroscuro/ By rolling it on my tongue// Like cotton candy the color/ Of day and night.” (June) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information. Library Journal.

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