Before arriving at Oklahoma’s Langston University, Melvin B. Tolson already had established himself as an educator of impact.
At historically black Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, in the 1920s and ‘30s, Tolson had built an award-winning debate team that defeated largely all-white college teams around the country. Decades later, that effort would be memorialized in the movie “The Great Debaters,” with Denzel Washington playing Tolson.
Tolson moved on from Texas to historically black Langston in 1947.
He taught there for the next 17 years and directed the school’s Dust Bowl Theater.
Tolson also got involved in local politics, serving as mayor of the town of Langston for three terms through 1960.
Tolson, who died in 1966, is buried in Guthrie.
His impact on Oklahoma was also felt through his son. Melvin B. Tolson Jr. became the first full-time black professor at the University of Oklahoma.