On May 25, 1966, Melvin B. Tolson received the annual poetry award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Born in Missouri in 1898, Tolson was only fourteen when his first poem was printed. He began teaching English and speech at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, in 1924, and remained there for twenty-three years. He coached the speech team known as The Great Debaters and was played by Denzel Washington in a 2007 movie by the same title.
Several of Tolson's poems were published in Modern Monthly and the Modern Quarterly in the late 1930s, and in September 1941 the Atlantic Monthly published his prize-winning "Dark Symphony," which was later set to music by Earl Robinson and performed by Paul Robeson.
Tolson wrote a weekly column about black life in America for the Washington Tribune from 1937 to 1944. In the latter year his first collection of poetry, Rendezvous with America, made its appearance. In 1947 Tolson joined the faculty of Langston University in Oklahoma, where he remained until his retirement in 1964.
Also in 1947, Tolson was named poet laureate of Liberia, inspiring his Libretto for the Republic of Liberia (1953). In his last book Tolson returned to the world of Harlem with The Curator (1965), the first part of a projected work, Harlem Gallery. He died in Dallas in August 1966.
From Texas State Historical Association