History of the City-Wide Spelling Bee

5/7/2012, 2:19 p.m.

The Washington Informer began sponsoring the D.C. Wide Spelling Bee during the 1981-82 school year. The late Dr. Mary E. White, supervising director, D.C. Public Schools Division of Instructional Services, Department of English, sought participation for D.C. Public Schools students in the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee held annually in Washington, D.C. While Scripps-Howard was willing to include the District of Columbia in the national competition, it could not do so based upon its requirement that a daily newspaper must serve as the official sponsor of the local competition.

Many years prior, The Washington Daily News sponsored the local spelling bee. Subsequently, The Washington Star purchased the Daily News, and ceased sponsorship of the spelling bee. Thus, for more than 15 years, District of Columbia public, private and parochial school children could not participate in the national competition for lack of a sponsoring newspaper.

Dr. White solicited support from the Washington Post, hopeful that the publisher would agree to become the District's official sponsor. According to Dr. White, Post officials told her that since the daily newspaper was a regional publication, their sponsorship would have to include not only the District of Columbia, but suburban Maryland and Virginia, as well. However, at that, the Journal newspaper chain had served as the suburban sponsor for several years, resulting in the Post's refusal to sponsor the bee solely for students enrolled in District schools.

Dr. White then appealed to Dr. Calvin W. Rolark, a friend and supporter of the D.C. Public Schools, president and founder of the United Black Fund, Inc. and publisher of The Washington Informer newspaper. It was Dr. White's hope that Dr. Rolark would exercise his influence over the Post officials and persuade them to agree to sponsor the spelling bee. However, as publisher of a weekly newspaper, which served more than 25,000 readers in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia, Dr. Rolark volunteered his publication to serve as a sponsor. With that, he brought in his daughter, Denise Rolark, managing editor of The Washington Informer, to assist in coordinating the District's first spelling bee along with Dr. White and other D.C. Public Schools officials.

The first city-wide spelling bee was held at Backus Junior High School in March, 1982. The winner was a sixth grade student, John Krattenmaker, who attended Mann Elementary School. Unbeknownst to Dr. Rolark, John was not permitted to participate in the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee held the following May because The Washington Informer was and still is not a daily newspaper.

As an officer of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, a trade organization of nearly 200 African American-owned newspapers across the country, Dr. Rolark concluded that the national spelling bee was maintaining an inherently racist policy because there were and still are no African American-owned daily newspapers in the country. Therefore, if in a jurisdiction, like Washington, D.C., where the majority of the student population is African American, students who might otherwise be eligible to participate in the spelling bee would be precluded from doing so unless a white-owned daily agreed to become the official sponsor.