The 1904 Summer Olympics, held in St. Louis, Mo., were poorly organized yet featured a number of historic firsts. George Coleman Poage, a track athlete from the University of Wisconsin, would become the first African-American to compete in the Games and the first to win a medal.
Poage, born November 8, 1880 in Hannibal, Mo., was raised primarily in Wisconsin in the town of La Crosse. An excellent athlete and student, Poage would eventually become the University of Wisconsin’s first Black track athlete and then became the first Black Big Ten individual track champion.
After graduating from the university with a degree in History, Poage returned to the school as a History grad student and worked with its football team. Still competing in events, Poage was endorsed by a local athletic club to compete in the 1904 Games in the track and field category.
The Games, as previously noted, was not the most welcoming event for the athletes. There was inadequate housing and fields for competition, and other distractions took place as well. The Games held a racist, so-called “Third World tribesmen” sideshow which placed a number of indigenous peoples into sporting competition despite their lack of training and safe equipment. The Games featured the first two Black Africans to compete in the Olympics – Tswana tribesmen Len Tau, and Yamasani.
On September 1 of that year, Poage won the first of his two Bronze medals. History doesn’t showcase which event Poage won the first medal in but he competed in the 200 and 400-yard hurdles event.
Poage remained in St. Louis after the Olympics and became a high school English teacher, then moved to Chicago in 1920 and worked in food services before landing a job for the Post Office in 1924. Despite his academic and athletic achievements, Poage worked as a postal clerk for almost 30 years.
After retirement, Poage remained in Chicago. He died there, at the age of 82, in 1962.
In 1998, he was elected to the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame.