George Coleman Poage: The first Black Olympian

JASMIN K. WILLIAMS AmNews Staff | 9/21/2012, 1:32 p.m.

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.