By Nicole E. Webb
As February begins the start of Black History Month, this week The Lincolnian remembers Lincoln alum, Melvin B. Tolson.
Tolson, born on February 6, 1898 in Moberly, Missouri, graduated from Lincoln University in 1924 with honors after transferring from Fisk University in Tennessee. He would go on to teach English and speech at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, where he was the organizer of the award-winning Wiley Forensic Society.
In 1947, Tolson went on to teach at Langston University after receiving his master’s degree at Columbia University in New York.
Known for his literary works, Tolson became known as a prominent poet and writer as his works challenged those around him.
“He was the first black poet to assimilate ‘completely the full poetic language of his time and…the language of the Anglo-American tradition,’” said Allen Tate in the preface of Tolson’s Libretto for the Republic of Liberia
The Lincoln alum and writer would go on to write great works like Rendezvous with America and the poem Dark Symphony, which went on to win 1st place in the American Negro Exposition National Poetry Contest in 1939. Tolson’s final work was the poem The Harlem Gallery, published in 1965.
In 1966, Tolson died after complications from surgery for cancer. In 1966, the Melvin B. Tolson Literary Society was founded at Lincoln University, in honor of Tolson, to accentuate the importance of the humanities, poetry and literature. After student involvement declined, in September of 2008, Rienne Scott renamed the Tolson Society and founded Infinite Supply of Passion and Intense Talent, also known as I.S.P.I.T., under the direction of the Lincoln University English Department. Along with a collection of his poetry being published in A Gallery of Harlem Portraits (1979), in 2007 Harpo Productions in collaboration with the Weinstein Company produced The Great Debaters in honor of Tolson’s legacy. The biopic film directed by Denzel Washington follows the life of Tolson, played by Washington, while teaching at Wiley College as he prepares the Wiley College debate team for competition.
Almost 47 years after his death, Tolson’s legacy continues to be remembered by poets and writers in the African American community, as well as in the arts.