Scripps Spelling Bee 2021: Louisiana Teen Makes History as First African-American Winner

Zaila Scripps Spelling Bee 2021

Fourteen-year-old Zaila Avant-garde made history at the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday when she became the first African-American winner in the spelling competition’s 96-year history.

The eighth-grader from Harvey, Louisiana, is only the second Black champion of the long-running competition, following Jamaican-based Jody Anne-Maxwell, who won the championship in 1998. It was a significant moment, given the history of the bee; in 1936, MacNolia Cox became the first Black finalist and she wasn’t allowed to stay in the same hotel as the other competitors.

Zaila’s winning word was “murraya” (a type of tree), but before she spelled it out, she won the support of many viewers by referencing comedian and actor Bill Murray. “Murraya. Does this word contain, like, the English name ‘Murray,’ which could be the name of a comedian,” she asked. “Bill Murray made the spelling bee,” the moderator laughed.

After correctly spelling the word, Zaila jumped for joy and gave a winning twirl as confetti shot onto the stage — giving the young student a fright. When asked how she felt about her victory, she said, “Really good. I mean, I was a bit surprised. I’ve been warned about the confetti.”

Despite her win, spelling is just a side hobby for the young student, even though she practiced seven hours a day for the competition. Zaila’s true passion is basketball, where she holds three Guinness world records, including most basketballs dribbled simultaneously, most basketballs bounces, and most bounce juggles in one minute. She hopes to attend Harvard and then maybe play in the WNBA or even coach in the NBA.

“I kind of thought I would never be into spelling again, but I’m also happy that I’m going to make a clean break from it,” Zaila said. “I can go out, like my Guinness world records, just leave it right there and walk off.”

Fans on Twitter, including actor Halle Berry, were full of praise for Zaila following her victory. Check out some of the reaction below: