Gloria Lockerman's Spelling Bee Upset | WYPR

Gloria Lockerman's Spelling Bee Upset

Oct 26, 2018

Every year Baltimoreans hear about the National Spelling Bee where 12-year-old contestants are successfully spelling such esoteric words as tenebrous, dysphagia and retrogression. Up through the 1950s students from Baltimore City's junior high schools, under the sponsorship of the Baltimore Sun, competed in the National Spelling Bee. And here is where we begin the heartbreaking story of a little, 12-year-old African-American girl named Gloria Lockerman.

On May 19, 1955 Gloria (of 1021 North Poppleton Street in West Baltimore) was seated in the auditorium of the Chamber of Commerce in Washington D.C. as a finalist representing Baltimore City and Booker T. Washington Junior High, the end of a long and thrilling road.

Gloria, her teacher, and grandparents arrived two days early at the spelling bee headquarters in Washington. They spent the time visiting monuments and practicing with Gloria who told reporters “I'm playing Scrabble. It helps me to see the words.” Gloria survived the run-off and qualified for the finals. Promptly at 8:30 the next morning she was seated with 64 of the country's elite spellers: 37 girls and 27 boys. A frightened, but quietly confident Gloria Lockerman lasted through five more tense rounds correctly spelling beguile, application and witticism.

She was on a roll but when she was asked to spell a word described by the leader as a soft white clay-like material used to hold tobacco and smoking pipes, Gloria paused. She pronounced the word carefully and then began to spell it: ‘m-i-r---‘ and then the tears came. 

Listen to this Baltimore Story to hear the word, and then see if you can spell it!