1898 – 1966
Melvin B. Tolson became the first Poet Laureate of the Republic of Liberia. Born in Moberly, Missouri, Tolson spent his junior and senior years at Kansas City’s Lincoln High School. He later studied at Fisk University in Nashville, Lincoln University in Oxford, Pennsylvania, and Columbia University. From 1923-1947, Tolson taught English, directed plays, and coached the debate team at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. In 1935, his team beat the defending national champions from the University of Southern California, a victory that became the basis for the 2008 Denzel Washington movie The Great Debaters.
In 1944, Tolson published his first collection of poetry, the well-received “Rendezvous with America.” He also wrote “A Gallery of Harlem Portraits,” “Libretto for the Republic of Liberia,” and “Harlem Gallery.”