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*On this date in 1908, Marie C. Bolden, a Black girl, won the first National Education Association (NEA) Spelling Bee in America. This team-based, inter-city spelling bee was at the Hippodrome Theater in Cleveland, Ohio.
Predating the 1st Scripps National Spelling Bee in 1925 by seventeen years, this competition was the first national spelling bee in the United States. Cleveland won the team competition, and Bolden was the individual champion. The spelling bee was part of Cleveland's forty-sixth annual National Education Association (NEA) convention. The NEA invited teams to compete from across the United States and promoted the competition as the first national spelling bee. Six thousand people, including convention speaker Booker T. Washington, attended the event at the Hippodrome.
Marie C. Bolden
The 1908 NEA Spelling Bee was an inter-city contest, with teams of fifteen eighth graders each participating from Cleveland, Erie, Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh, and New Orleans. For the competition, each student took a written spelling test of one hundred words and then spelled four words aloud on stage. The total number of spelling mistakes in the written and verbal competitions determined the winning team. The Cleveland team won the competition with the fewest errors, followed by Pittsburgh in second place, New Orleans in third place, and Erie, Pennsylvania, in fourth. Bolden was the only Cleveland speller with no errors, so she was named the individual champion and received a gold medal.
Before the competition, racial segregation created controversy. Some all-white New Orleans team members took offense at competing on the same stage with racially integrated teams such as Cleveland's. After Marie Bolden and the Cleveland team won the competition, New Orleans school superintendent Warren Easton apologized to the people of New Orleans, promised that New Orleans students would not participate in any other contests in Northern states, and was censured by the New Orleans school board for allowing white students to compete against a black speller.
In the written portion of the competition, pronouncer Solomon Henry Clark gave an incorrect example for the word "capitol," causing many spellers to write it as "capital." After the second-place Pittsburgh team and others raised concerns, the spelling bee organizers re-scored the written tests. After re-scoring, the teams kept their overall rankings, but Marie Bolden no longer had a perfect score, and two other girls on the Cleveland team did. Marie Bolden was still allowed to keep her gold medal and title as champion.