MELVIN BEAUNORUS TOLSON was born on February 6, 1898, in Moberly, Missouri. Tolson's father, Alonzo, was a Methodist Episcopal preacher who was frequently reassigned to different churches in the Midwest, so that the family spent time in Missouri, Iowa, and elsewhere. Tolson began writing early, and at the age of fourteen his first poem was published in a local Iowa newspaper. He attended Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, and Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where he received a B.A. in 1923. While at Lincoln, Tolson met Ruth Southall, whom he married in January of 1922. They had four children.
Tolson became an instructor of English at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, in 1924. He taught literature courses and organized a debate team that enjoyed remarkable success under his leadership. While at Wiley, Tolson worked on fiction (including a novel, Beyond the Zaretto, whose manuscript was lost), but it was not until after he moved to Harlem in 1932 that he began writing the poetry that would win him critical recognition. He resumed his studies at Columbia University, where he earned a master's degree in 1940. He began assembling a volume of poetry, A Gallery of Harlem Portraits, a collection of portraits of Harlem personalities from all walks of life. The poems appeared separately in various periodicals and were published as a collection posthumously in 1979.
In 1937 Tolson was invited to write a weekly column, "Caviar and Cabbage," in the Washington Tribune. He wrote the column for seven years, commenting frequently on racial matters as well as promoting black writers and musicians. A selection of his columns was published in 1982.
Tolson's first published volume of poetry, Rendezvous with America, appeared in 1944. One poem in the collection, " Dark Symphony," had won first place in a poetry contest sponsored by the American Negro Exposition in Chicago. Rendezvous with America gives voice to some of Tolson's left- leaning political views in its attacks on capitalism, imperialism, and racism. The collection received generally favorable reviews.