The winter Olympics are underway in South Korea and a piece of the games early history has roots in Wisconsin’s hidden history. Brittany Falkers introduces us to George Poage, the first African American to win an Olympic medal.
It’s a name you may not recognize, but one you probably should.
“You would have thought that maybe that medal placing would kind of solidify his place in history, that we’d all know George Poage’s name, but somehow we don’t.”
George Coleman Poage was the first African American to win an Olympic medal. His story was recently brought forward by Tod Pritchard through the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association.
“I think George’s story is an amazing story lost to history and I think that re-telling his story will do some justice to what’s been undone for a long time.”
The son of a freed slave, George Poage was born in Hannibal, Missouri, in 1880. At just four-years-old he and his family moved to La Crosse, Wisconsin, where they were taken in by a wealthy white family, providing young George a rare education.
“Going into high school he really blossomed. He became a track star. He graduated second in his class.”
While many reports say Poage was the first African American to graduate from La Crosse High School, author Bruce Mouser says otherwise.
In his biography on Poage’s life, he writes that two women of color graduated before him, making Poage the first African American man to graduate from the high school.
“He gave the graduation speech at La Crosse High School where he talked about racism, that there needs to be more of an equal footing for everyone.”
At the turn of the century , Poage’s talents brought him to the University of Wisconsin- Madison, where he quickly advanced as a track star on an otherwise all white team.
“George broke records left and right. He was a Big Ten champion. The first African American Big Ten champ for track and field.”
Although Poage was respected by his teammates, his ethnicity became highlighted in regional newspapers describing him as the “colored wonder” and “the crack colored sprinter of the Wisconsin team”.
Constant reminders that he was an outsider in a sport that was intended for Wisconsin’s white athletes, according to Mouser.
He graduated UW-Madison with a degree in history and went on to the greatest track meet of his life — the 1904 Olympics — just the third modern Olympiad. But he took the world’s stage at a time deeply embedded in racism.
Spectator facilities were segregated at the games in St. Louis and African American leaders called for a boycott, but Poage chose to run.
“We don’t know why but he decided to compete to go to that Olympics and to compete and we’ll probably never know exactly why, there’s no real written record of that, but he decided to go.”
And his choice to run solidified his place in history. Becoming the first African American to medal at the games, he earned not one, but two bronze medals for the 200 and 400-meter hurdles.
The history of how African Americans reacted is largely undocumented, but Mouser writes, “For some, Poage was a hero who took his status and name-recognition as ‘the colored sprinter’ from Madison to St. Louis, but he was still operating within a white dominated world, and he was risking the possibility by ‘resisting’ the appeals of African American leaders to boycott the games of becoming an outcast in the world of his own race.”
“You can find Poage’s name here, alongside other hall of fame athletes at UW-Madison, but his accomplishments have faded into history.”
“He really got got lost in the pages of history and, you know, we’re not really sure why.”
Poage’s time as a career runner ended with the 1904 games. He went on to teach and work for the postal service in Chicago. He died in 1962 at the age of 82.
“One of the mysteries about George is why a man with such intellect and such talent ended up fading into history and I guess we kind of have to put ourselves in that place and that time and obviously for an African American man there were very few opportunities.”
More than a century later — just two years ago — his adopted hometown of La Crosse, Wisconsin, ensured their community will never forget. In the city you can now find George Poage Park and a statue of their track star honoring his legacy.
“I think now, finally people are recognizing what an amazing man George Poage was and the accomplishments and the firsts. He was a man of many many firsts. I think now we’re finally coming around to the fact that we need to remember this man and celebrate this man. And what an impact he had on the world.”