The Birth of John Henry
The night John Henry is born an ax
Melvin Beaunorus Tolson was an American poet, educator, columnist, and politician. As a poet, he was influenced both by Modernism and the language and experiences of African Americans, and he was deeply influenced by his study of the Harlem Renaissance.
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.
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.
As a debate coach at the historically black Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, Tolson led a team that pioneered interracial college debates against white colleges in the segregated South.
From October 1937 to June 1944, Tolson wrote a column for The Washington Tribune, which he called “Cabbage and Caviar.” In 1941, he published his poem “Dark Symphony” in 1941. Some critics believe it is his greatest work, in which he compared and contrasted African-American and European-American history. Tolson’s final work to appear in his lifetime, the long poem Harlem Gallery, was published in 1965. The poem consists of several sections, each beginning with a letter of the Greek alphabet.