Melvin B. Tolson, Black Educator Hall of Fame Member


Every day this month, the Center for Black Educator Development, in partnership with Phillys7thWard.org and Citizen Ed, will highlight a Black Educator Hall of Famer. But, don’t forget, e’ry month is Black History MonthFebruary is just the Blackest.

Today, our featured Black Educator is Melvin B. Tolson.

Melvin Barnabus Tolson was born on February 6, 1898, in Missouri. Tolson’s parents both emphasized their children receiving an education.

Tolson was a graduate of Lincoln High School in Kansas City in 1919 and he graduated from Lincoln University in 1923. He also received a master’s degree from Columbia University.

Upon graduation from Lincoln, Tolson began his teaching career at Wiley College in Texas where he taught English from 1924 to 1947. A star at Wiley, Tolson served as the football coach, play director, and speech and debate coach, where under his direction, Wiley’s speech and debate team maintained a ten-year winning streak between 1929 and 1939—winning a National Championship over the University of Southern California (USC) in 1935.

Tolson was also a poet. Inspired by interviewing artists of the Harlem Renaissance for his graduate thesis, Tolson began writing poetry, which was often published by Black newspapers. Tolson’s first book of poetry, Rendezvous with America, was published in 1944.

Toldson’s work as Wiley’s debate team coach reached the big screen in 2007 in the movie The Great Debaters. Tolson was portrayed by Academy Award Winner Denzel Washington.

After his time at Wiley, Tolson accepted a position at Langston University in Langston, Oklahoma in 1947; during that same year, he was appointed the Poet Laureate of Liberia, which inspired his second poetry book, Libretto for the Republic of Liberia which honored the centennial of Liberia’s founding. It was published in 1953.

With all this work, Tolson esteemed by Langston Hughes, who said Tolson was “the most famous Negro Professor in the Southwest.”

Known for his complex, visionary poetry, Melvin B. Tolson was one of America’s leading Black poets. He wrote within the modernist tradition and his work was influenced by the Harlem Renaissance. Tolson’s skillful delineation of character, his ability to turn discussions of aesthetics into social commentary, his breadth of vision, and his deftness with language garnered critical acclaim.

Melvin B. Tolson; a member of the Black Educator Hall of Fame.

For more information on Melvin B. Tolson, visit the following site.

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