Melvin Tolson, poet and teacher, son of Alonzo and Lera (Hurt) Tolson, was born at Moberly, Missouri, on February 6, 1898. Since his father was an itinerant Methodist minister, Tolson lived in several towns before graduating from high school in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1918. After spending his freshman year at Fisk University, he attended Lincoln University, Oxford, Pennsylvania, from 1920 until graduation in 1923. On January 29, 1922, he married Ruth Southall; they had four children. In 1924, with an appointment in English and speech, Tolson started his teaching career at Wiley College, Marshall, Texas, where he stayed for the next twenty-three years. He showed an early interest in poetry, drama, and debate. He was only fourteen when his first poem was printed, and during the Wiley years the debate teams he coached earned considerable renown, while one unpublished play after another was locally staged. Poetry, however, turned out to be his enduring concern as Tolson, boldly experimenting with a variety of styles, became acquainted with the waning Harlem Renaissance and the poetry of Hart Crane, Ezra Pound, and others. He started work on a master's degree at Columbia University in 1930. Tolson began writing his large collection of poetry, A Gallery of Harlem Portraits, in 1932 and completed it in 1935, but was unable to find a publisher for it (it was published posthumously in 1979). V. F. Calverton published several of Tolson's poems in Modern Monthly and the Modern Quarterly in the late 1930s, however, and in September 1941 Atlantic Monthly published his prize-winning poem "Dark Symphony," which was eventually set to music by Earl Robinson and performed by Paul Robeson. In 1937 Tolson had also started his column, "Caviar and Cabbage," in the Washington Tribune, a series largely about black life in America, which continued generally on a weekly basis until 1944, the year in which Tolson's first collection of poetry, Rendezvous with America, made its appearance.
By the time Tolson left Texas in 1947, he had reportedly also been active in organizing farm laborers and sharecroppers. His next position was that of professor of English and drama at Langston University in Oklahoma, where he taught until his retirement in 1964. In 1947, in connection with the centennial of his country, Liberian president William V. S. Tubman made Tolson poet laureate of Liberia, a gesture to which the poet responded with his Libretto for the Republic of Liberia (1953), a work that prompted Allen Tate to write, "For the first time . . . a Negro poet has assimilated completely the full poetic language of his time and . . . the language of the Anglo-American poetic tradition." This long, learned poem stands in the tradition associated with T. S. Eliot. In his last book Tolson returns to the world of Harlem with The Curator (1965), the first part of a projected work, Harlem Gallery. On May 25, 1966, Tolson received the annual poetry award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He died in Dallas on August 29, 1966, and was buried in Guthrie, Oklahoma.