Behind Zaila Avant-garde’s Win, a History of Struggle for Black Spellers

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The nearly 100-year-old Scripps National Spelling Bee acknowledged that it “has not been immune from the social issues of its times, including the long-fought battle for racial equality,” but added that it prided itself on “administering an academic program that’s accessible to millions of school-age children of every race, ethnicity or socioeconomic background.”

“Our hope is that Zaila’s amazing accomplishments will be seen as an inspiration to other young people and another step forward in that cause,” the bee said in a statement.

Paul Ramsey, a Black retired English teacher in New York, grew up in Louisville, Ky., in the 1950s. His parents, math teachers, enrolled him in an all-Black Catholic school that was so poor it lacked indoor toilets, Mr. Ramsey said.

When Mr. Ramsey was about 11, his teachers, who were nuns, entered him into a citywide spelling bee against other, all-white Catholic schools. To prepare, he had to study a list of about 200 words.


He was the only Black student in the citywide contest and made it to the final two.

After he and his opponent, a white student, had exhausted the list of prepared words, the judge moved on to a list of words reserved for older students.

The nuns had not prepared Mr. Ramsey for those words, but the other student’s teachers clearly had.

When Mr. Ramsey lost, the audience of about 60 people cheered and clapped for him, impressed by his achievement.

“I was Black in a segregated situation,” Mr. Ramsey said. “They didn’t expect that. They didn’t even expect me to be second.”

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