A Woman to Know: MacNolia Cox

Sometimes you learn words / by living them and sometimes / words learn you / by defining who you are. — A. Van Jordan's poem, "Infidelity"

(image via The Afro-American Newspaper)


It was 1936. Akron local MacNolia Cox and Elizabeth Kenny, of New Jersey, were competing in the National Spelling Bee. They were making history — the first black girls allowed to compete in the much-watched competition.

In preparation for the bee, 13-year-old MacNolia pored over the official list of words the contest had instructed participants to study.

There were 10,000 words. She near-memorized them.

On their way to the event in Washington, DC, MacNolia and her mother had to make separate arrangements. They couldn't travel with the other families in the whites-only train car, and they couldn't stay with the contestant families at the Willard Hotel. On the day of the bee, MacNolia and her mother were seated at their own banquet table, away from the white attendees.

But onstage, MacNolia aced the words. She won challenge after challenge, making it to the final five contestants.

But in the final rounds of competition, she misspelled "nemesis" — a word that, as it turns out, was never included on the list given to her to study.

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