Spotlight on George Poage, the first Black Olympic medalist

George Poage Photo courtesy of La Crosse Public Library Archives

George Poage can claim a piece of Black history for himself, though, at the time of his success, few noticed.

A track star at the University of Wisconsin, Poage was the first African American medalist in Olympic history, winning the bronze in both the 200 hurdles and 400 hurdles at the 1904 Games in St. Louis.

He was also one of the first two Black athletes in Olympic history overall. Born in Hannibal, Missouri in 1880, Poage moved to LaCrosse, Wisconsin with his family at a young age.

He became the first African American to run at Wisconsin and was the first Black individual track champion in Big Ten history, winning both the 220 hurdles and 440 run in 1904.

Unlike the glitzy extravaganzas that define today’s Games, those earliest Olympics were small, loosely organized, and often ignored by the media.

(MGN Online)

In several cases, including St. Louis in 1904, the Games were a sideshow to the World’s Fair, held at the same time. Only 681 athletes from 13 nations came to St. Louis, and some events featured only American entrants.

Organizers of the Games banned audience integration, building Jim Crow facilities for racial separation. Though St. Louis has been lambasted for its laughably poor organization, one Olympic tradition was born amid the chaos. The traditional medals for the top three finishers — gold, silver, and bronze — were awarded for the first time in the 1904 Games.

In that era, municipal athletic organizations supplied many of the participants. Among them was the Milwaukee Athletic Club, which produced several stars of the Games, including Poage, the first nonwhite member of the club.

Poage made his Olympic debut in St. Louis that August 29 in the 400-meter run and finished sixth. The 400 was contested without lanes, which caused plenty of confusion among the thirteen entrants. Two days later, Poage became the first Black medalist in Olympic history in the 400 hurdles, finishing third of four entrants, all Americans.

On September 1, Poage picked up his second medal, coming in third in a field of five Americans in the 200 hurdles. That event was dropped from the Olympic program after St. Louis.

Afterward, Poage taught high school in St. Louis before spending thirty years as a postal clerk in Chicago. He died in 1962.

 

Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Ill. He welcomes reader responses at 217-710-8392 or ilcivilwar@yahoo.com.