A Cleveland Bee Heard Round the World

By Jamie Stiehm

May 30, 2018 5 min read

When May and June meet, it's spelling season.

What's more American than a spelling bee? Not even baseball. Spelling bees are for all, male and female, with civic virtue and innocence. Cleveland's civic virtue came under challenge at, of all things, the first national spelling bee. Booker T. Washington, the famed leader of Tuskegee Institute, witnessed the drama.

The girl's name was Marie Bolden. She had just finished the eighth grade at the Hough School in Cleveland. She made a momentous mark on America's soul in June 1908 at the first national spelling bee, held in her city. The times were rosier than ever since the Civil War, with President Teddy Roosevelt greeting progress in a buoyant way and ships full of immigrants steaming in from the Old World.

Marie was the only girl of color at the spelling bee, held in the new Hippodrome. The City on the Lake, as Cleveland was known, was eager to put on a grand show for its visitors. The teachers union, the National Education Association, was holding its convention there. In the newspaper picture my sister and I found, Marie was striking and serene, seeming older than her years.

Our great-grandfather, educator Warren Hicks, told the story many times over his 101 years. Organizing the first national spelling bee was his task as the assistant superintendent of schools in "nineteen hundred eight," as he said it. He came from the Dakota prairie to Cleveland, the fifth-largest city, so it was his chance to make a mark, too.

Teams of schoolchildren poured into Cleveland from all points: Boston, Pittsburgh and New Orleans. They went boating on Lake Erie and had their pictures in The Plain Dealer. It was an exciting congregation, even a showcase for the nation's public schools. And it was a lark, to travel by train. The modern 20th century seemed to be off to a good start.

What happened to this pretty picture? Behind the scenes, the New Orleans teachers noticed Marie Bolden on the Cleveland spelling team. Meaning, they noticed the color of her skin. In 1908, Jim Crow segregation was alive and well in the South. Though the nation was thriving, lynchings were rising. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded a year later, in 1909.

The New Orleans teachers demanded that Marie be taken off her Cleveland team. The line our great-grandfather handed down: "They said they didn't bring their children to the North to compete with the colored." The New Orleans team was favored to win the whole thing, but threatened to boycott. Their exit could spoil the show.

Hicks and William Elson, the schools superintendent, well knew that Marie placed last on the Cleveland team of 15 spellers. They could have nudged her off. Instead, here's what happened.

"We held out our friendly hand" to New Orleans, my great-grandfather said. The Cleveland school leaders said Marie had earned her place fair and square, and would keep it. They urged New Orleans to stay and spell in the historic event.

So they did. Five hundred students paraded onstage at the Hippodrome. I have a list of the words prepared by spelling experts. This was the way American English was drilled into young heads. Teachers from all over were watching.

We investigated the story and think Marie knew of the attempt to exclude her from the spelling bee, shortly before that morning. Something happened to galvanize the girl: "I made up my mind," she declared. She may have been descended from slaves, born before 1900. Her father was a letter carrier.

One thing is sure. Marie Bolden was the only speller who did not miss a single word. She won the first national spelling bee, becoming champion to a thundering ovation. Even the New Orleans girls stood and cheered.

Race is etched as a North-South matter. But this Cleveland confrontation shows a Midwestern way of doing the right thing without palaver. The story traveled down South and round the world as a tale of American democracy, reaching Africa.

The first national spelling bee was about much more than spelling in the end. It still brings fresh wisdom.

To find out more about Jamie Stiehm and other Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, visit creators.com.

Photo credit: at Pixabay

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