History April 11, 2018 at 10:02 am

George Coleman Poage: The first African American to win Olympic medal in 1904

Bridget Boakye | Contributor

Bridget Boakye April 11, 2018 at 10:02 am

April 11, 2018 at 10:02 am | History

George Coleman Poage

In 1904, George Coleman Poage, a track and field athlete and scholar, became the first African-American to win a medal at the Olympic Games.

He won two bronze medals in the 400-meter hurdle and 200-meter low hurdles competitions.

The 1904 Olympic Games were held in St. Louis. Although black citizens were called to boycott the games due to segregated seating policies, Poage participated in the competition. African-American athlete Joseph Stadler did as well, winning a silver medal for the standing high jump on the same day.

Background

Poage was born on November 6, 1880, in Hannibal, Missouri. His family later moved to La Crosse, Wisconsin.  Poage was both class salutatorian and the first African-American student to graduate from La Crosse High School. He was also a skilled track and field athlete, breaking Wisconsin’s 50-yard state record during his senior year.

Poage attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he ran varsity track alongside other leadership responsibilities. He spoke and read several languages; graduating in 1903 with a degree in History after completing a senior thesis, “An Investigation into the Economic Condition of the Negro in the State of Georgia During the Period of 1860-1900.”

After the 1904 Olympic games, Poage worked as an educator, teaching students English, theater, and debate. He eventually worked as a farmer in Minnesota before moving to Chicago to work as a postal clerk. Racial biases of the time may have kept Poage from finding work aligned with his educational background. Poage died on April 11, 1962, in Chicago, Illinois.

In 2013, the city of La Crosse renamed Hood Park, George C. Poage Park to honor Poage’s accomplishments, which is oft forgotten.

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