I had an affinity for good literature, strongly developed by the wonderful teachers I had at H. B. Pemberton High School in Marshall, Texas. That appreciation really took off when I was a student in Dr. Melvin B. Tolson’s class at Langston University in Langston, Oklahoma. It was in his class that I was taken to a higher level. T. S. Eliot, Ezra L. Pound, Robert Lee Frost, Langston Hughes, Thomas Gray, and others; in Dr. Tolson’s classroom, their works ceased to be just that—works. Dr. Tolson taught with passion and made these works come alive, and for me and for a lot of his other students, he brought us into that life. I appreciated that then. I have come to appreciate it even more since.
Dr. Tolson had an effect on me whether I wanted him to or not. I did not intend to teach, but now that I have been doing it for more than forty years, I can truly say that one of the most influential people in making me the best that I can be as a teacher was Dr. Tolson.
As I remember, the first I heard about Dr. Tolson was that he taught sophomore literature and that most students had to do a repeat performance at least once for a passing grade to get out of his class. His reputation around the campus was legendary among the victims of his teaching—and he was the only teacher at that level. Like all my other classmates, I was anxious. But taking a class from Dr. Tolson was a joy. He was about 5'7", between 135 and 145 pounds, and as dynamic as a volcano. When he became engrossed in a presentation, he seemed to forget the present and become a part of what he was presenting.
He had some peculiar ways. He didn’t seem to care how he dressed or looked. He would wear patterns that didn’t seem to go together or shirts that were not ironed, eyeglasses tied onto his head by a shoestring. And he would make statements that didn’t make sense until you slowly processed them (later to come to the conclusion that what he said made sense no other way). He was a man who marched to different drumbeat, and the more you were around him the more you wanted to get on that beat.
I have to believe in the Zeitgeist because I was raised in Marshall, Texas; Wiley College, where Dr. Tolson taught for twenty-four years, is in Marshall, Texas. Yet I had no knowledge of him. He joined the Langston University faculty in 1947. I finished high school in Marshall and entered Langston in 1959 and entered his class in 1960. Go figure.
"Melvin Tolson is the most famous Negro professor in the Southwest," wrote Langston Hughes after a visit to Texas. "Students all over that part of the world speak of him, revere him, remember him, and love him."
Dr. Tolson taught creative literature at Langston for eighteen years. The Langston drama club—The Dust Bowl Players—was his creation. My senior year, when I was ready to graduate, Dr. Tolson found me and asked me to be in one of his productions—Lost Horizon. As a senior, I strongly suggested I not be. I was in the production. Once he found out I was from Marshall he called me "home boy," and home boys stick together.
Langston citizens evidenced their admiration and respect for him by electing him mayor for four terms. I am one of the many blessed students to have attended the kind of institution available to Negroes at that time to be taught by one of the GREATS at that time.
Roland C. Hayes
January 19, 2008
Roland C. Hayes is director of the African American Cultural Center and professor of history at Austin Community College in Austin. He has written on African American history for a variety of publications, including the Handbook of Texas, and his interview with the late Barbara Jordan is part of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library Oral History Collection. He serves on the Joint Austin Independent School District and City of Austin Task Force on African American Education and Quality of Life.