Melvin Beaunorus Tolson (February 6, 1898 – August 29, 1966) was an American Modernist poet, educator, columnist, and politician. His work concentrated on the experience of African Americans and includes several long historical poems. His work was influenced by his study of the Harlem Renaissance, although he spent nearly all of his career in Texas and Oklahoma.
Tolson is the protagonist of the 2007 biopic The Great Debaters. The film, produced by Oprah Winfrey, is based on his work with students at predominantly-black Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, and their debate with University of Southern California (USC). Tolson is portrayed by Denzel Washington, who also directed the film.
Born in Moberly, Missouri, Tolson was one of four children of Reverend Alonzo Tolson, a Methodist minister, and Lera (Hurt) Tolson, a seamstress of African-Creek ancestry. Alonzo Tolson was also of mixed race, the son of an enslaved woman and her white master. He served at various churches in the Missouri and Iowa area until settling longer in Kansas City. Reverend Tolson studied throughout his life to add to the limited education he had first received, even taking Latin, Greek and Hebrew by correspondence courses. Both parents emphasized education for their children.
Melvin Tolson graduated from Lincoln High School in Kansas City in 1919. He enrolled at Fisk University but transferred to Lincoln University, Pennsylvania the next year for financial reasons. Tolson graduated with honors in 1924. He became a member of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity.
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