Melvin Beaunorus Tolson was born on February 6, 1898, to the Reverend Alonzo Tolson and Lera Tolson. Tolson’s father was, as his grandfather had been, a minister in the Methodist Episcopal Church. His father, who was fond of discussing Western philosophy during fishing trips, expected Tolson to follow him into the ministry and was disappointed when his son chose a different vocation. Tolson’s mother was part Cherokee Indian by heritage and her father had been killed for resisting enslavement. Thanks to a family friend, Mrs. George Markwell, a white woman who made her library available to the precocious youth, Tolson had the early benefit of knowledge and learning in his immediate surroundings. The family moved from Missouri to Oklahoma, and then to Iowa, but wherever he went, Tolson was a popular classmate. In high school, he captained the football team, participated in debating contests, and directed plays for the school’s theater.
In 1919, Tolson entered Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. He later transferred to Lincoln University, the nation’s oldest historically black college, in Oxford, Pennsylvania. In 1923, his senior year, he met the woman he would marry, Ruth Southall. After his graduation, they wed and moved to Marshall, Texas, where Tolson had secured his first teaching post, at Wiley College.
Although he continued writing plays, fiction, and poetry at Wiley, it was as the debating team coach that Tolson’s name...
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