By Michael LeCompte
The upcoming film Race chronicles the golden exploits of Jesse Owens against the powers of racism at the 1936 Olympics. Owens’ story is well-known, yet still heroic. Racially and historically significant it is certainly worth remembering and retelling, however, at the 1904 Olympics (nine years before Owens was even born), it was another African-American, George Poage, who made history.
Poage (1880-1962) grew up in La Crosse, Wisconsin. In 1899 he was not only the first African-American to graduate from La Crosse High School, he was also the class Salutatorian.
Continuing his education at the University of Wisconsin Poage was held in such high-esteem by teammates and University officials that he occasionally coached the Badger’s track squad when their actual coach was away on business.
Poage specialized in the 440 and 220 meter hurdles and in 1904 became the first African-American track champion in the history of the Big 10.
After earning a Bachelor’s degree in American History Poage remained at Wisconsin and began working on a Master’s degree, while serving as a trainer for the football team and continuing to run track.
In 1904 the Olympics were held in St. Louis to coincide with the World’s Fair. National African-American leaders called for a boycott of the games to protest the segregation of the athletic events and audiences at the Fair exhibits, however, the Milwaukee Athletic Club offered Poage a sponsorship to compete.
Similar to the decision Owens would face 32 years later Poage had to determine whether he should make a statement against the overt racism of the time by sitting out the Olympics or take a stand on the track, letting his performance speak for itself.
Poage ultimately chose to compete and he became the first African-American to win an Olympic medal, taking bronze in both the 200 and 400 meter hurdles.
Following the Olympics Poage worked in St. Louis as a teacher then a school principal. In 1920 he moved to Chicago and was a postal clerk for 30 years. He died in 1962.
From the classroom to the track and the world stage, George Poage was truly a man of firsts. His combination of grace and athleticism resulted in medals and provided the perfect example for Jesse Owens and what is perhaps the greatest American Olympic triumph ever.