To coincide with this year’s Scripps Spelling Bee, Babbel is challenging Americans to search garages and attics to rediscover a lost piece of the nation’s cultural and race-relations history: the gold medal awarded to Marie C. Bolden, a 13-year-old African-American girl from Ohio, who in 1908 became champion of the first national Spelling Bee, causing outrage among racist politicians and the educational establishment.
To gather insights on Marie’s life and legacy, Babbel collaborated with her descendants, now based in Canada. It was only following Marie’s death in 1981 when, going through her personal papers, her family learned of her teenage triumph and national fame. They concluded that the controversy following her win caused her to never mention it, and accounted for why she did not retain her medal.
In the event that Marie’s medal is not found, Babbel will create a new medal to be presented to her family members in her honor.
Babbel uncovered Marie’s extraordinary, yet overlooked, story as part of a deep-dive into the history of spelling bees in the US and their role in linguistic development and learning. Though no known images of the medal exist, it is described as gold in color, with a clasp or pin, and may have “Cleveland Board Of Education,” “Champion – American Public School Spellers” or “1908” engraved on the front.
Anyone with information regarding the medal’s whereabouts is encouraged to get in touch via the following email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Marie C. Bolden: Her Triumph And The Racist Controversy That Followed
On June 29th, 1908, Marie C. Bolden, a 13-year-old African-American girl from Ohio, made history by being crowned champion of the first-ever national Spelling Bee Competition (staged as part of the 46th annual convention of the National Education Association). Her achievement was witnessed by 6,000 people at Cleveland’s Hippodrome Theater, creating headlines across the country and the world. Marie was the only non-white girl participating in the competition.
Predating the First Scripps National Spelling Bee in 1925 by 17 years, the 1908 competition was the first such national competition in the United States. Leading up to the event, schools across the US had held spelling competitions to shortlist participants for the national contest. Ultimately, four teams of 15 eighth-grade students were selected, representing Cleveland, Erie, New Orleans and Pittsburgh. For the competition, each student took a written spelling test consisting of 100 words, and then spelled four hundred words aloud on stage. The Cleveland team won the competition, and Marie C. Bolden, daughter of a Cleveland mail carrier, was the individual champion, spelling every word without a single error. The words that Marie spelled correctly included “prejudice,” “persevere,” “misspell” and “embarrass.”
The Perth Amboy, New Jersey evening news described the moments following Marie’s victory: “She was applauded by 6,000 adults, and the children of the Pittsburgh and Erie teams and even of the New Orleans team, which for a time refused to spell against her because of her color, shook her hands.” Marie explained her motivations to a New York Times reporter present: “I did not enter the spelling contest for personal glory, but to try to help bring honor to my teacher and my school.” In a Cleveland Plain Dealer interview, she stated that to overcome nerves, “I just kind of gritted my teeth and made up my mind that I wouldn’t miss a word.”
Booker T. Washington, the African American educator, author, orator and adviser to several presidents of the United States, was in the audience to witness Marie’s triumph. He commented onstage following the event: “You will admit that we spell out of the same spelling book that you do. And I think you will also admit that we spell a little better.”
Malcolm Massey, language expert at Babbel Live, comments: “From a linguistic viewpoint, retaining and spelling this number of words correctly, especially in such a stressful and intimidating situation, is an outstanding cognitive achievement. Her statements at the time give clues about her personalized learning method: her parents and friends helped her memorize words, and she read a newspaper each day to perfect her spelling. It’s a blueprint for today’s would-be Spelling Bee champions.”
Marie’s achievement was quickly overshadowed by racially-charged condemnation from politicians and educational figures, however, with some refusing to accept the result and criticizing the decision to allow racially integrated teams (such as Marie’s) from the northern and midwestern states to have competed against all-white Southern teams (New Orleans having been favorites). Louisiana newspapers proposed that the New Orleans team had lost due to being unsettled by having to compete onstage with a Black student. New Orleans school superintendent Warren Easton apologized and promised that his city’s students would never again participate in contests in Northern states. A party planned for the returning New Orleans spellers (finishing in third place) was canceled. On July 7, Easton announced that white teachers at Black public schools in New Orleans would be replaced by Black teachers, a move directly linked in the local papers to “the incident of the Cleveland Spelling Bee.” When the New Orleans Black YMCA planned a spelling bee in Marie’s honor, Mayor Martin Behrman intervened and canceled it, citing a risk of “a race riot.”
Marie Bolden lived a quiet life following her brush with fame. She married Clarence Brown in 1917 and moved with her family to Canada following the Second World War, with the country’s more progressive attitude to race at the time a motivating factor. She died in 1981, 73 years after her childhood triumph at the first spelling bee.
Massey comments: “Spelling bees are a celebration of language and symbolize how language is for everyone, no matter their background. Marie proved that. When our research led us to her story, we couldn’t believe how little-known and under-celebrated it was. Launching a search for Marie’s missing medal will hopefully make Americans aware of her remarkable achievement that was a triumph over prejudice, and possibly the most powerful demonstration of the role of spelling bee competitions as an inclusive leveler.”
Mark Brown, Marie’s grandson, now resident in Ontario, Canada, comments: “My grandmother never spoke of her childhood involvement with the first Spelling Bee, and we only started to piece together the details following her death. I can only speculate as to why she never mentioned it, but I suspect that the experience of going from pride at victory to finding herself in the center of a storm of prejudice must have contributed to her silence and not wanting to keep her medal. Though over a century has passed since her win, and she is long gone, we are all so very proud of her.”
Marie Bolden’s Spelling Bee Victory: The Words She Spelled Correctly
For those keen to test their spelling ability, below are 99 of the 100 words — sourced from newspaper archives — Marie spelled correctly to win the competition.