Poet and educator Melvin B. Tolson began teaching at the historically black Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, in 1924. His students included James Farmer, founder of the Congress of Racial Equality, and Heman Sweatt, who challenged the segregated University of Texas Law School. A dedicated mentor, Tolson coached Wiley's debate team through an impressive ten-year winning streak. The team is portrayed in the 2007 film The Great Debaters, with Tolson played by Denzel Washington.
Tolson was also a brilliant and inventive poet, drawing upon both the western tradition and the distinctive rhythm and vernacular of the blues. In 1947, the African nation of Liberia named him poet laureate.