Melvin B. Tolson

From Academic Kids

Melvin Beaunorus Tolson (February 6, 1898August 29, 1966) was an American Modernist poet, educator, columnist, and politician. His work concentrated on the experience of African-Americans and includes several poetic histories. He was a contemporary of the Harlem Renaissance, and although he was not a participant in it, his work reflects its influences. Liberia declared Melvin B. Tolson as its poet laureate in 1947.


Tolson graduated from Lincoln University with honors in 1924, and in the same year he moved to Marshall, Texas to teach Speech and English at Wiley College. While at Wiley, Tolson built up an award-winning debate team, which in 1935 beat the University of Southern California, the reigning national champions. He mentored students such as James L. Farmer, Jr. and Heman Sweatt at Wiley. He encouraged his students not only to be well-rounded people but to also to stand up for their rights, a controversial position in the U.S. South of the early and mid-20th century.

Tolson took a leave of absence to earn a Master's degree from Columbia University in 1930-31. Tolson began teaching at Langston University in Langston, Oklahoma in 1947. Also in 1947 Liberia declared him as its poet laureate. Tolson entered local politics and would go on to serve three terms as Mayor of Guthrie, Oklahoma from 1954 to 1960. Tolson died after cancer surgery in Dallas, Texas in 1966 and is buried in Guthrie.

Literary Works

From 1930 on Tolson began writing poetry, and in 1941 Dark Symphony, often considered his greatest work, was published in Atlantic Monthly. Dark Symphony compares and contrasts African-American and European-American history. In 1944 Tolson published his first poetry collection, Rendezvous with America which includes Dark Symphony. The Washington Tribune hired Tolson to write a weekly column, Cabbage and Caviar after he left his teaching position at Wiley in the late 1940s.

In 1965 Tolson's final work to be published in his life time, the long poem Harlem Gallery, was published. The poem consists of several sections, each beginning with a letter of the Greek alphabet. The poem concentrates on African American life and is a drastic departure from his first works. The poems he wrote in New York were published posthumously in 1979 as A Gallery of Harlem Portraits. A Gallery of Harlem Portraits is a mixture of various styles as well as free verse. The racially diverse and culturally rich community presented in A Gallery of Harlem Portraits may be based on or intended to be Marshall, Texas.


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