Before George Coleman Poage made history at the 1904 Summer Olympic games, the Missouri-born trailblazer had already been accustomed to completing extraordinary “firsts.”
Poage was the first African-American to graduate from his high school in Wisconsin, where he was named class salutatorian. When he arrived at the University of Wisconsin, Poage added to his list of impressive accomplishments by becoming the first black athlete to run track for the school. He later became the only African-American at the time to secure individual Big Ten track championships when he finished first in the 440-yard dash and 220-yard hurdles.
But Poage’s status as a sports pioneer and American hero would be solidified at the 1904 Summer games in St. Louis. It was only the third Olympics competition ever held, and the first event hosted in the United States. But the spectacle was not shielded from the deep-seated racism that plagued the country at the time.
Jim Crow laws forced black spectators to watch the games from different facilities separate from whites. The racist conditions pushed some African-American leaders to call for an Olympic boycott.
But Poage elected to compete; and on September 1, 1904, he would etch his name in the Olympic history books.
Poage raced to third-place finishes in the 200-meter and 400-meter hurdles—earning bronze medals in both events. The feat earned Poage the distinction as the first black athlete to win a medal at the Olympics. He also competed in the 60-meters and 400-meter sprints.
Poage’s historic accomplishment helped pave the way for the thousands of black athletes who reach the medal stand for years to come. Four years later, John Taylor would become the first black athlete to win a gold medal at the Olympics.
After appearing in the Olympics, Poage spent the rest of his life outside of the limelight.
Over the next decade, he served as the head of the English department at a segregated high school in St. Louis. After spending time at living on a ranch in Minnesota’s countryside, Poage moved to Chicago following World War I. He got a job working at the United States Post Office in 1924 and worked there for nearly 30 years before his retirement.