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On the Shoulders of Giants: Melvin Tolson

Melvin Tolson was born in Moberly, 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 parents often 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 before attending Fisk University. He then transferred 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, Tolson met a young lady named Ruth Southall. The couple 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, co-founded the black intercollegiate Southern Association of Dramatic Speech and Arts, and organized the Wiley Forensic Society which became the Wiley College debating club.

The debating club earned national acclaim by claiming numerous victories and breaking the color barrier debating white institutions. They maintained a ten year winning streak from 1929 to 1939. Tolson wrote all of the speeches, and the team memorized 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’s degree in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. While attending Columbia he became acquainted with artists 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.” He also began working on a 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. He 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 often working diligently to support his family but he always found time for his art. In 1939, he published his first significant poem “Dark Symphony” which won a national poetry contest sponsored by the American Negro Exposition. The poem was later published in Atlantic Monthly and 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 but 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 was highly celebrated and gained Tolson more acclaim for his work. He was compared to poets such as T.S. Elliot and Ezra Pound, despite the comparisons, Tolson decided to embrace the richness of African history and heritage within his poems. He 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 which 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 of the African diaspora.

In 2004, Tolson was inducted posthumously into Oklahoma Higher Education Hall of Fame. In 2007, the 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, and he proved that one can become successful and not turn their back on their heritage. As the grandson of a slave, he was taught to become great, while inspiring a nation through his greatness. Mr. Melvin B. Tolson, we stand on your shoulders.

J.A Ward

 

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