Legend has it that Hercules, the son of Zeus, founded the ancient Olympic games, but the first games with written records were held in 776 BCE. The sole event was the Stade, a run of about 210 yards. A cook named Corobus won, becoming the first Olympic champion in history.
For the next 1,200 years, this celebration of sport was held every four years with steadily increasing popularity until 393 CE, when Roman Emperor Theodosius I abolished it because of “pagan” influences.
Some 1,500 years later, Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin revived the games. It is believed that his interest in sport came after France was trounced by Germany during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Coubertin believed that the defeat was not due to a lack of military prowess, but by the French soldiers’ lack of energy and vigor. He decided that exercise, specifically sports, made for a more well-rounded person. He wanted to revive the Olympic games.
In 1896, the Summer Olympics, a multi-sport event known as the Games of the I Olympiad, were held in Athens, Greece, from April 6 to 15. Since then, the best athletes from around the world have convened in different countries around the world to participate in this beloved international sporting tradition.
Athletes of African descent have competed and excelled in the Olympic games, facing the challenges of world-class competition made even more daunting by prevailing attitudes of racism. The year 1904 marked the third modern Olympic games. It was also the first year that the United States was granted the privilege of hosting the international sporting event, along with the year of the famous 1904 World’s Fair, held in St. Louis, Mo. However, the Black press and many prominent Black Americans rightly called for a boycott of both. The Olympics and the World’s Fair were riddled with Jim Crow racism, complete with segregated, substandard facilities for Black athletes and Black spectators.
And with that backdrop, George Poage, a Black runner from Hannibal, Mo., faced a dilemma. Should he boycott the fame or take the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and participate? He chose the latter, becoming the first Black person to compete and medal in the Olympic games. It would be a shining moment of glory for this pioneering athlete and scholar some 32 years before Jesse Owens made history on the track.
Poage was born in Hannibal in 1880 to James Poage and Annie Coleman. The family moved to LaCrosse, Wis., when he was still a young boy. James Poage took a job as a coachman to a wealthy lumberman in town, but died soon thereafter.
The family moved in with a white financier who gave Coleman work as a stewardess and encouraged the education of her two children. Young George Poage began honing his skills as an athlete and a scholar. He entered LaCrosse High School and soon became the school’s top athlete. He graduated in 1899 as the salutatorian—second in his class of 25—and the school’s first Black graduate.
Next, he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin and quickly became immersed in campus activities. He was involved in public speaking, representing his peers as an orator for his class. He was also a member of Philomathia, a campus literary society.
Poage was an even bigger success on the athletic field. He joined the track team and soon became the star athlete, specializing in sprints and hurdles. He was a frequent point winner for the Badgers and the first Black athlete to run for the university. Poage’s athletic ability was so well respected that when the track coach was called out of town in 1902, he assigned the star runner to take over coaching duties.
Poage graduated in 1903 with a degree in history. His thesis was titled “An Investigation into the Economic Condition of the Negro in the State of Georgia During the Period of 1860-1900.”
When Poage graduated from UW in 1903, the caption for his senior photograph declared that he was “Of matchless swiftness; but of silent pace.”
Poage returned to take graduate classes and the athletic department hired him as a trainer for the football team. In June of 1904, he became the first Black athlete to represent the Milwaukee Athletic Club and the first individual Big 10 track champion in conference history, winning both the 440-yard dash and 220-yard hurdles.
The Milwaukee Athletic Club knew that Poage had the stuff to win and sponsored him to compete in the Olympics.
The Olympic Games were far from the grand event they would become. Just 496 athletes from 11 countries competed with some 20,000 spectators in attendance for the track and field events. Despite well-founded calls to protest the Olympics and the World’s Fair , Poage chose to compete in an integrated event. He would not only become the first Black Olympic competitor, he would also become the first Black medalist. He took home the bronze medal in the 200-yard and 440-yard hurdles. That same day, the second Black Olympian, American Joseph Stadler, won a silver medal for the high jump.
However, after the glow of his Olympic achievements faded, and despite his education and skills as a world-class athlete, Poage couldn’t find a job. Thanks to Jim Crow, he taught English at the segregated Charles Sumner High School in St. Louis. He also coached. Poage later moved to Chicago in search of opportunities to showcase his talents but found little success.
Poage stayed in Chicago and tried his luck in the restaurant business. In the end, this shining star, one of the world’s fastest and brightest, with his talents stifled by the racism of the day, was resigned to working in anonymity in a Chicago post office as a clerk for nearly 30 years. He died in 1962 at age 82.
- Look It Up: Use the Internet and other reference sources to learn more about the first Black Olympian.
- Talk About It: George Poage was a top student and a star athlete. Talk about how playing sports can make you a better student. What are some of your favorite sports?
- Get Out There: You may not have dreams of being an Olympian, but you can still participate in sports and other physical activities and have fun. If you don’t have a favorite sport, pick one and get out there and play.
This Week in Black History
- Sept. 19 – The Tuskegee Institute opens to 30 students on this date inaa1881. Booker T. Washington was the school’s lone teacher.
- Sept. 20 – The first National Negro Convention was held on this date in 1830 in Philadelphia. Richard Allen was elected as the first president.
- Sept. 22 – On this date in 1862, President Abraham Lincoln warned the Confederate states that he would issue the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves, unless they returned to the Union by the New Year.