George Poage Is Born

George Coleman Poage (November 6, 1880–April 11, 1962) was the first African American athlete to win a medal in the Olympic Games, winning two bronze medals at the 1904 games in St. Louis.

Born in Hannibal, Missouri, his family moved to La Crosse, Wisconsin when he was still a youngster. At La Crosse High School Poage excelled as both a student and an athlete. He was easily the school’s best athlete. As the second-best student in his class and its first African-American graduate, at commencement in 1899 he addressed the assembly as the salutatorian of his class.

The Milwaukee athletic club sponsored Poage to compete in the third Olympic games that were being held during the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. Many prominent African-American leaders had called for a boycott of the games to protest racial segregation of the events in St. Louis. An integrated audience was not allowed at either the Olympics or the World's Fair as the organizers had built segregated facilities for the spectators. Poage chose to compete and became the first African-American to medal in the Games by winning the bronze in both the 220-yard and 440-yard hurdles.

As the first black athletics medalist, George Poage has a special place in Olympic history. When Poage was three years old his family moved to LaCrosse, Wisconsin, where his father obtained a position as coachman to a wealthy lumberman in that town. In 1899, George Poage became the first black student to graduate from LaCrosse High School, after which he entered the University of Wisconsin, graduating from there in 1904. While a senior at Wisconsin he set another first by being the first black athlete to be invited to become a member of the Milwaukee AC. Poage was outstanding for Wisconsin in dual meets and set collegiate records of 49.0 for 440y and 25.0 for the 220y hurdles. At the 1904 Olympics, Poage was eliminated in the heats of the 60m dash before he won his two medals. Immediately following the Games, Poage took up a teaching post at Charles Sumner High School in St. Louis and remained there until 1914, when he returned to Minnesota and purchased a quarter section, which he farmed until 1920. He then moved to Chicago, briefly worked in the restaurant business, and then was in the employ of the post office for 27 years before retiring.