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Melvin B. Tolson
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Educator
    (February 6, 1898-August 29, 1966)
    Born in Moberly, Missouri
    Educator, poet and politician
    Taught speech and English at Wiley College, a traditionally black school in Marshall, Texas
    Was also the debate team coach for Wiley
    Wrote the poems 'Dark Symphony' (1941), 'Libretto for the Republic of Liberia' (1953) and 'Harlem Gallery' (1965)
    Served three terms as mayor of Langston, Oklahoma (1954-60)
    Portrayed by Denzel Washington in 'The Great Debaters' (2007)
    The B stood for 'Beaunorus.'
    The 'Great Debaters' depicts Wiley defeating Harvard for a championship; in reality, they faced the University of Southern California (1935).
    Also, although USC were the reigning champs and Wiley beat them, they were not allowed to call themselves victors because they were not officially recognized as a debate society. (Debate teams from black colleges would not be officially recognized until after World War II.)
    Henrietta Bell Wells, the last surviving member of the debate team that beat USC, called him her crabbiest teacher.
    Wells also said he was her best teacher.
    Under his direction, the Wiley debate team maintained a ten-year winning streak (1929-39).
    He earned a masters degree from Columbia at a time when few black people were able to pursue higher education.
    He was named poet laureate of Liberia (1947).
    He inspired several of his students to become civil rights activists, most prominently Congress of Racial Equality founder James L. Farmer, Jr.

Credit: C. Fishel


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