Melvin Tolson was born in Moberley, Missouri in 1898, to parents Reverend Alonzo Tolson and Lera Tolson. Lera Tolson was a seamstress and Reverend Tolson served at several Churches in the Missouri, Iowa and Kansas City areas; Tolson’s parent stressed the importance of education with their four children. In 1912 he published his first poem, “The Wreck of the Titanic,” in the Oskaloosa, Iowa newspaper. He also became the senior class poet at Lincoln High School. In 1918 Tolson graduated from Lincoln High School in Kansas City, Missouri, and then attended Fisk University before transferring to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania as a freshman. Tolson received his Bachelors of Arts with honors from Lincoln University in 1923. During his time at Lincoln University he met Ruth Southall; they married in 1922 and had four children. In 1924 after graduating from Lincoln University, Tolson became an instructor of English and Speech at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. He not only taught at Wiley College, he coached the junior varsity football team, directed the theater club, cofounded the black intercollegiate Southern Association of Dramatic Speech and Arts, and organized the Wiley Forensic Society, which was the Wiley College debating club.
The debating club earned national acclaim by winning and breaking the color barrier very successfully. They maintained a ten year winning streak, from 1929 to 1939, Tolson wrote all of the speeches and the team memorized the speeches and used them. Tolson became such a master debater, that he would write the rebuttals for his opponents opposing arguments before the debate. In 1931 he began pursuing his master degree in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. There he became acquainted with artist from the Harlem Renaissance and was inspired to make his place within the history of black American art. Using that inspiration, Tolson named his Master’s thesis “The Harlem Writers.” Tolson also began working on another collection of poetry, which was later published in 1979 as A Gallery of Harlem Portraits. That same year he began working with V.F. Calverton, the editor of Modern Quarterly; Tolson began writing “Cabbages and Caviar”, a column for the Washington Tribune which ran from 1937 to 1944. Tolson also taught English and drama at Langston University in Langston, Oklahoma, as well as organized the sharecroppers when he lived in South Texas. In 1935 Tolson led his Wiley College debate team to a National Championship over the University of Southern California. Tolson was working to support his family, but he always found time for his art. In 1939 he published his first significant poem Dark Symphony; the poem won a national poetry contest sponsored by the American Negro Exposition. The poem was later published in Atlantic Monthly; the poem also got the attention of an editor who published his first collection of verse, Rendezvous with America, in 1944.
Tolson wrote plays and novels, all of which were not published; despite a great portion of his work being unpublished he was appointed the poet laureate of Liberia in 1947 by President V.S. Tubman. In 1953 he published Libretto for the Republic of Liberia, this piece gained Tolson more acclaim for his work. Tolson was compared to T.S. Elliot and Ezra Pound, despite the comparisons Tolson decided to embrace the richness of African history and heritage within his poems. Tolson began constructing a project of five books which were a collection of poems that were intended to capture black life in America. Each book was designed to represent a stage in the African American Diaspora. Tolson died in 1966 and only completed the first of five books, it was titled Harlem Gallery: Book 1, The Curator; which was published in 1965. Before Tolson died, he was named to the Avalon Chair in humanities at Tuskegee Institute. He also received grants from the National Institute and American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Rockefeller Foundation. In 1954, he was appointed permanent fellow in poetry and drama at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont. In 1964, he was elected to the New York Herald Tribune book-review board and the District of Columbia presented him with a citation and Award for Cultural Achievement in the Fine Arts. In 1966, he received the annual poetry award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1970, Langston University founded the Melvin B. Tolson Black Heritage Center in his honor, to collect material of Africans, African Americans, and the African diaspora. In 2004, Tolson was inducted posthumously into Oklahoma Higher Education Hall of Fame. In 2007, the biographical film, The Great Debaters, was released depicting Tolson’s time leading the Wiley College Debate Team to ten years of excellence and a National Championship. Melvin Tolson was a literary genius and a dedicated man to his heritage his family, and his community. Langston Hughes wrote, “Melvin Tolson is the most famous Negro professor in the Southwest. Students all over that part of the world speak of him, revere him, remember him and love him”; after a visit to Wiley College. Tolson left a legacy that persons of African descent can be proud of, he proved that one can become successful and not turn their back on their heritage. As the grandson son of a slave, he was taught to become great by his family. Mr. Melvin B. Tolson, we stand on your shoulders.
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