Tolson was born February 6, 1898 in Moberly, Missouri. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree with honors from Lincoln University in 1923 and his Master of Arts degree in English and comparative literature from Columbia University in 1940.
Shortly after receiving his undergraduate degree, Tolson took a position as English and speech instructor at Wiley College. He also served as the football coach, play director, and speech and debate coach. Under his direction, the debate team maintained a ten year winning streak, including winning the national championship over the University of Southern California which was the subject of the 2007 film “The Great Debaters.”
Tolson’s first book of poetry, “Rendezvous with America,” was published in 1944. In 1947, he was appointed the Poet Laureate of Liberia and in 1953 he published “Libretto for the Republic of Liberia.” Tolson also served two terms as Mayor of Langston, Oklahoma from 1954 to 1960. In 1970, Langston University founded the Melvin B. Tolson Black Heritage Center to collect material of Africans, African Americans, and the African diaspora.
His autobiography, “Melvin B. Tolson, 1898 – 1966: Plain Talk and Poetic Prophecy,” was published in 1984.