Before Sam Smith died, he gave Devin Brooks directions for how to reestablish the Native Son Spelling Bee.
“We used to have conversations on why the spelling bee was important,” recalled Brooks, the founder of the current competition. “He gave me direction on what he thought was the best thing to do.”
Smith was an institution in the Westside neighborhood and owned the only African American bookstore — of the same name as the spelling bee — in the state, according to Brooks. It wasn’t just a place to get books; it was a gathering place for meetings and to connect with neighbors. It was named after the book “Native Son” by Richard Wright — an iconic black author.
Smith was passionate about education and started the first Native Son Spelling Bee to help students learn to spell.
“He was really that guy that kept the community together and inspired,” Brooks added.
Brooks remembered that as a child, Smith would help him read.
“I always had a problem with spelling; he was the one who challenged me on that,” Brooks said.
Due to the busy nature of the spelling bee, it was sporadic under Smith’s leadership. After Smith met with Brooks to plan the reestablishment of the competition, he died days later. Inspired by Smith’s dedication to the community, Brooks decided to take the lead position for putting the spelling bee together.
Native Son Spelling Bee hasn’t missed a year in the six years since that meeting. The final round for the 2020 competition is set for noon-3 p.m. Saturday at the West Las Vegas Library Theatre.
The competition is open to anyone in the Las Vegas area but predominantly draws students from African American and Latino communities, according to the Rev. Kelcey West, executive director of the competition. He estimated that about 80 percent of the participants are people of color.
The idea is to make children comfortable with spelling and encourage them to read books.
The spelling bee focuses on third- and fourth-graders because those are the most critical grades to learn to read, West said. There will be 72 students, 36 from each grade competing for top honors. The first-place winner will be given $1,000 the second-placer $750 and third $500 — covered by sponsors and donations to the organization.
The students have already competed in several rounds among hundreds of other participants, West noted, adding that was a feat in itself.
“We are trying to counter that school-to-prison pipeline,” West said, adding that children in those grades who can read better are less likely to end up incarcerated.
Also, “It increases their confidence,” West said. That translates into better grades and increased parental engagement, which increases literacy scores, he said.
Seeing the children on stage every year overwhelms Brooks with pride.
“Kids have something to remember for the rest of their lives,” Brooks said, adding each participant is given a uniform to compete in. “The whole experience for any kid to be affiliated with, I think it’s going to be something they always remember.”
It isn’t uncommon for children to show up with dictionaries in hand, West said.
“They take it very seriously,” he said.
If you go
What: Final round of Native Son Spelling Bee
When: noon-3 p.m. Saturday
Where: West Las Vegas Library Theatre, 951 W. Lake Mead Blvd.
Information: 702-507-3989 or nativesonspellingbee.com