The Birth of John Henry
Tolson was born in Moberly, Missouri, on February 6, 1898, and he died at the age of 67 on August 29, 1966, in Dallas, Texas, a few days after undergoing surgery for cancer. In 1922 he married Ruth Southall, and in 1924 he graduated with honors from Lincoln University. From 1924 until 1947, Tolson taught at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, taking a year’s leave in 1930-31 to pursue work in a Master’s degree from Columbia University. His project for a thesis centered on interviewing members of the Harlem Renaissance. From 1947 onward he taught at Langston University in Langston, Oklahoma (where he also served three terms, from 1954 to 1960, as Mayor).
Melvin B. Tolson earned little critical attention throughout most of his life, but he eventually won a place among America’s leading black poets. He was, in the opinion of Allen Tate, author of the preface to Tolson’s Libretto for the Republic of Liberia, the first black poet to assimilate “completely the full poetic language of his time and, by implication, the language of the Anglo-American tradition.”