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‘New Chicago and Beyond’

Dr. Odie Henderson Tolbert Jr. – the first African American librarian for Memphis State University – lived a life that was a testament to perseverance, commitment and faith. Dr. Odie Henderson Tolbert Jr. – the first African American librarian for Memphis State University and longtime national archivist for the Church of God in Christ – lived a life that was a testament to perseverance, commitment and faith.

 Dr. Odie Henderson Tolbert Jr.
 Dr. Odie Henderson Tolbert Jr.

Born Aug. 21, 1939 in Memphis, Dr. Tolbert died on Sept. 22. Services for him were held at Pentecostal Temple C.O.G.I.C, 229 S. Danny Thomas Blvd., with burial in Memorial Park Southwoods. J.O. Patterson Mortuary had charge.

Dr. Tolbert’s parents, the late Mr. Odie H. Tolbert Sr. and Mrs. Rozina Lanier Tolbert affectionately called him “Baby Junior.” He grew up in the New Chicago area of North Memphis and was raised at the New Chicago Church of God in Christ during his teenage years. He later joined Pentecostal Temple under the leadership of the late Bishop J.O. Patterson Sr.  

A beautiful singing voice added to Dr. Tolbert’s distinction. He was a member of the sanctuary choir and the Pentecostal Male Ensemble. Many recall him singing lead on songs such as “ We Are Crossing Over,” “Deliverance Will Come” and “Just As Long As I Live.” Through his singing ministry, his father “accepted Christ” – dying a short while later, leaving his 17-year-old namesake with man-of-the-house responsibility.  

Educated at Manassas School, Dr. Tolbert graduated with honors, receiving a full scholarship to Morehouse College in Atlanta. Because of his commitment to his mother and sisters, he turned down the scholarship to help support his family. In 1957, he started his college career at Owen Junior College. While at Owen, he became involved in Student Council activities with his best friend, Dr. George Grant.  It was here that he discovered his love for library science and history.  

Two years later, he enrolled at Lemoyne College and worked a full time shift at the John Gaston Hospital while there. After graduating, he applied for a teaching position in both the Memphis and Shelby County school systems but never heard from either. Later that year, he moved to Chicago to seek employment. The following year, he was drafted into the United States Army and served two years. During the latter part of his active duty, he sustained a hearing loss and was granted an honorable discharge.

Dr. Tolbert returned to Chicago, where he worked and pursued a master’s degree from Northern Illinois University, graduating in 1969. The following August, he was offered a catalogue librarian position at Memphis State University, the university’s first African-American librarian. He worked there for over 33 years, receiving many awards and accolades and was honored by the university.

After he retired, Dr. Tolbert returned to his high school alma mater and was one of the lead coordinators for establishing the school’s first alumni archives. He also wrote his autobiography, “New Chicago and Beyond.” With the help of his family and friends, he created a fictitious town called TOLBERTVILLE USA, which is located in the Tolbert home today.

During a national Church of God in Christ Youth Congress in Milwaukee, Wisc., he met Maganolia Smith, affectionately known as “Nan,” and the two were married in May 1970. To this union, three children were born (two daughters and one son). Throughout his life, Dr. Tolbert was a father to many, including his two sisters.

From 1986 to 2000, Dr. Tolbert served as C.O.G.I.C’s National Archivist, with his work instrumental in Mason Temple’s recognition as a national historic landmark. His humanitarian service netted an honorary doctorate degree from Trinity Hall College and Seminary. And C.O.G.I.C. Presiding Bishop Charles E. Blake Sr. granted him emeritus status.

He leaves, his wife of 41 years, Maganolia “Nan” Tolbert; two daughters, Alisa Ann Crawley (Elder Vernon) of Milwaukee, and Carla Renee Tolbert Taylor (Martez) of Memphis; one son, Odie H. Tolbert  III (April  Michelle) of Little Rock; three grandchildren, Caitlin Alysse, Ashlynn Renee and Martez D’Juan Alexander Taylor II.

Odie also leaves two sisters, Delores T. Malone and son, Thomas II of Memphis, and Mary T. Bland and son, James II of Duarte, Calif.; a maternal aunt, Jennie Mae Jones of Chicago; seven brothers-in-law, seven sisters-in-law, five aunts, four uncles and a host of nieces, nephews, cousins and friends.

Three grandchildren, Cameron Taylor and Owen and Oryan Tolbert, preceded him in death.

Dr. Tolbert will also be remembered by his godchildren, Jean Ellis, Marico Thomas, Donnell Word Jr. and Courtney York.

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