First black Olympic medalist was born in Hannibal

George Poage | Photo Courtesy of Murphy Library, University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Sep. 12, 2016 8:15 am Updated: Sep. 12, 2016 11:26 am

I just read that the first black man to win an Olympic medal for the United States was from Hannibal. What else do you know about him?

George Coleman Poage won the bronze in two hurdle events at the third Olympic Games in St. Louis. The first black man to win a gold medal for the United States was John Taylor of Washington, D.C., who ran the 400-meters as part of the men's medley relay team in the 1908 Olympics in London.

Poage was born in Hannibal, Mo., in 1880, but he moved to LaCrosse, Wis., when he was 4 years old. A LaCrosse newspaper in 1913 named him "perhaps the greatest athlete that was ever developed in this city."

Little else is known about Poage's ties to Hannibal, though he once was featured in the Hannibal African American Life and History Project at Jim's Journey, the Huck Finn Freedom Center, at 509 N. Third in Hannibal.

A story in the LaCrosse Tribune noted that Poage after his sister died in 1887 and his father and brother died the next year, he and his mother joined the household of Mary and Lucian Easton in LaCrosse. Easton's father, Jason, was a wealthy lumberman and railroad investor in Wisconsin.

Bruce Mouser, a retired University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse professor, has amassed boxes of materials on Poage. He told the Tribune that the Eastons gave Poage access both to their home and library, and they might have financially assisted Poage in attending the University of Wisconsin from 1899 to 1904. He finished second in his class and was the first black person to graduate from LaCrosse High School.

The University of Wisconsin website noted that Poage competed with the freshman track squad in 1900 and joined the varsity track and field team during his sophomore year. Poage was the first black athlete to run for the Badgers.

Poage graduated in June 1903, then returned to Wisconsin in the fall to take graduate classes. At the Big Ten Conference meet in June 1904, he became the first black individual track champion in league history when he captured first place in both the 440-yard dash and the 220-yard hurdles.

The Olympic games were being held in St. Louis in conjunction with the World's Fair a few months later, and the Milwaukee Athletic Club sponsored Poage to compete. Many prominent black leaders called for a boycott of the games, because the organizers of both the Olympics and the World's Fair had constructed Jim Crow facilities for their spectators and would not allow an integrated audience to view the them.

Poage chose to ignore the boycott. He captured bronze in both the 220-yard and 440-yard hurdles.

The Wisconsin website reported that after the Olympics, Poage remained to St. Louis to teach for 10 years at segregated Sumner High School, where he was the head of the English department and helped coach the school's sports teams. He stayed at Sumner for about ten years, before purchasing a farm in Minnesota. He lived in the countryside until after World War I when he moved to Chicago where he worked in a restaurant for four years.

Poage then took a job as a postal clerk in 1924 and stayed on the job for nearly 30 years until his retirement. He remained in Chicago until his death in 1962 at the age of 82. He is buried next to his mother in a grave without a headstone.

The LaCrosse City Council renamed Hood Park in the city to George C. Poage Park in 2013.

Four LaCrosse historians who researched Poage's life told the Tribune that gaps in his story might never be filled. Though he was an educated man known for his skills in oratory, writing, debate and drama, virtually nothing written by Poage has surfaced. He was a lifelong bachelor, and his closest surviving relatives are great-nieces and nephews who never knew him.

"As much as I've read about him, I'm still uncertain," Mouser told the Tribune in 2013. "He's still a mystery to me."

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