Zaila Avant-garde, a 14-year-old from the New Orleans area, won the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee on July 8th making her the first African American champion in the bee’s 96 year history.
Spelling “murraya” ( a type of tree) correctly for the competition win, Zaila knocked down a plethora of difficult words over multiple rounds during the competition! The teen had been practicing for two years to gear up for this years event. She recently told ABC’s Good Morning America that she hopes her historic win will inspire other young Black people in the United States to excel at spelling. “You don’t really see too many African Americans doing too well in spelling bees and that’s a bit sad, because it’s a really good thing … and kind of a gate-opener to be interested in education.” The only Black winner before her was Jody-Anne Maxwell, representing Jamaica in 1998.
Back in 1936, MacNolia Cox a 13 year old girl from Akron Ohio made it to the final round of the National Spelling Bee. She was the first Black student to get that far in the competition. The eighth grader was one of the last five spellers left on stage.
The judges, all Southern educators were reportably becoming visibly uncomfortable.
They gave her the word “Nemesis” a word that was technically a proper noun and not an eligible word, But it was too late and MacNolia was out.
Zaila, who will receive a $50,000 cash prize for the win, is not only a champion at spelling. She is also a basketball prodigy who has appeared in a commercial with Stephen Curry and owns three Guinness World Records for dribbling multiple balls simultaneously. Former president Obama said in a tweet after her win, “Congrats, Zaila—your hard work is paying off. We’re all proud of you.”
Zaila says she hopes to one day play basketball at Harvard before a career at NASA or as a coach in the NBA.