Among scholars of the Harlem Renaissance, Melvin B. Tolson is an early and important, yet often overlooked, figure. Tolson was a poet, educator, and columnist who was recalled in the 2007 biopic The Great Debaters as the coach of the Wiley College Forensic Society, which came to prominence as a leader in, and winner of, interracial college debates in the 1930s. Born in Kansas and educated at Fisk University and Lincoln University, Tolson joined the faculty of Wiley College, a small historically Black college in Marshall, Texas, in 1924 as an instructor of English and Speech.
In 1930, Tolson took a leave of absence of absence from Wiley to pursue his master’s degree at Columbia University in New York City. Tolson’s thesis, entitled “The Harlem Group of Negro Writers,” was one of the earliest studies of the Harlem Renaissance. His time in Harlem also coincided with Tolson’s own turn at writing poetry, which resulted in the collections Harlem Gallery: Book I, The Curator (1965) and the posthumous collection A Gallery of Harlem Portraits (written in 1932, but not published until 1979) among others. Yet, examination of two issues of The Wiley Reporter from 1932, held at the Amistad Research Center, illustrate that Tolson also recorded his impressions of Harlem through prose sketches he sent back to Wiley College during his time in New York.
The extent of Tolson’s sketches in The Wiley Reporter is difficult to determine as few libraries report holding issues of the publication and a survey of the scholarship on Tolson’s life and work fail to find any mention of the Wiley Reporter sketches. Works by Joy Flasch and biographer Robert M. Farnsworth lack reference to these writings, while the 1999 edition of Tolson’s poetry edited by Raymond Nelson also excludes these sketches from its bibliography of Tolson’s published works. Were the sketches in the two issues at Amistad, Tolson’s only such works? Further research will have to provide answers, but in the meantime, we report on the Lone Wolf and Countess of Harlem in Tolson’s own words.
The Winter Quarter 1932 of The Wiley Reporter may be the launching point of Tolson’s reporting on Harlem. That issue includes an article attributed to Tolson entitled “The Lone Wolf of Harlem,” which focused on the young novelist Harry F. Liscomb, whose novel The Prince of Washington Square had been published in 1925. Tolson described Liscomb as “a real Harlemite; and, with the possible exception of Countee Cullen, the only Negro novelist who was born and reared in the black metropolis.” [Although Cullen claimed New York City as his birthplace, scholars now cite Louisville, Kentucky, as his likely origin]. Tolson related his initial meeting with Liscomb, their discussions over meals, reviews of Liscomb’s book, and their last meeting prior to Tolson departing New York City:
When I saw him before I left the city, he shook my hand and said, looking across the humming thoroughfare: “Good-bye Tollie. We had a great year together I hate like ---- to see you go.” Hands thrust deeply into his pockets, his hat sitting at a rakish angle, the youthful novelist vanished into the sea of people that flowed along Seventh Avenue.
The lead into Tolson’s contribution to the December 1932 issue states, “In this thrilling article Professor Tolson continues his adventures among the interesting folk who make up the musical, artistic, and literary circles of Harlem” and describes the milieu of Greenwich Village and “The Studio of Countess Felicia.” Tolson recounted his introduction through his friend, Brandt, to the studio of a Russian dancer who was a “convert” to Communism and “had many Negro friends.” Tolson reported that:
I left her studio that night, with an invitation to return. She and Brandt took me with them to strange places. I owe them many evenings of unsurpassed cultural entertainment. I was in their box at the Star Casino when ten thousand radicals denounced the court action in the famous Scottsboro case.
Amistad’s holding of The Wiley Reporter also include the January 1942 issue, which contains a report of a dinner held in honor of Melvin B. Tolson, but the earlier 1932 issues are the only two in the Center’s holdings that include his Harlem sketches. Did Tolson send additional sketches for the students and faculty at Wiley College to read? Are there more out there in other issues of the publication? If so, let us know as we would love to add them to our collections!
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