Today in 1908, a team of students from Cleveland won a spelling title at the annual meeting of the National Education Association, thanks in part to a Black 14 year old named Marie C. Bolden.

Organizers asked eighth graders from across the country to come to Cleveland to take part in the competition to help highlight the importance of spelling and spelling education.

There were 34 teams and 510 students on hand.

And it certainly got plenty of attention: they sent out the spelling words over telegraphs as the contest went on!

But there was also controversy.

One team came from New Orleans, which was a segregated city.

They said they didn’t want a Black student to compete for Cleveland’s team, and demanded that Bolden be removed from the contest.

Team Cleveland said absolutely not, Bolden had won her spot on the team fairly, and if New Orleans didn’t want to compete against her then they could leave.

The New Orleans team ended up staying, and they would finish third overall.

Bolden said that when the pressure was on, “I just kind of gritted my teeth and made up my mind that I wouldn’t miss a word.”

And that’s pretty much how it played out.

The bee started with a 100 word written test, and then each student had to spell four words out loud.

When the judges looked at the scores, Marie Bolden had outscored everybody.

Plus, Cleveland’s students had the highest average score of any team.

Bolden made national news at a time when mainstream culture routinely claimed that Black people weren’t as smart or hardworking as whites.

And here was a 14 year old from Cleveland who had studied for weeks leading up to the bee and ended up coming in first.

In the days and weeks after the spelling bee, Marie Bolden would be given all kinds of honors and awards.

Booker T. Washington would celebrate her win in a speech as an example of the talent and ability of Black American children.

Not only that, she would also be celebrated by the other participants in the event.

One article notes that members of the team from New Orleans – the one that had tried to have her removed from the competition – congratulated Bolden and shook her hand too.

Today in Lincoln, it’s the Nebraska Elvis Festival.

Or at least that’s what the organizers said was supposed to happen starting today.

Some of the information online kind of trailed off.

So if it’s still happening, make sure all the Elvis impersonators in your life know about it.

And if it isn’t, maybe sing an Elvis song or two at home today?

Whatever you do, don’t be cruel.

Cleveland girl’s spelling victory created racial controversy, national headlines in 1908 (

Nebraska Elvis Festival

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Photo by J E Theriot via Flickr/Creative Commons