LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Whether dribbling a basketball or identifying obscure Latin or Greek roots, Zaila Avant-garde doesn’t show much stress. Now she has become the first African American winner in the 96-year history of the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
The 14-year-old basketball prodigy from Harvey, Louisiana, breezed to the championship on Thursday night. The only previous Black winner was also the only champ from outside the United States: Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica in 1998.
Zaila said she was fully aware that people were watching her and dreaming of following in her footsteps.
“I’m hoping that within the next few years, I can see a little bit of an influx of African Americans, and not many Hispanic people, either, so I’m hoping to see them there, too,” she said.
The bee has long been a showcase for spellers of color. Nine of the 11 finalists were of South Asian descent, and Zaila’s win breaks a streak of at least one South Asian winner every year since 2008.