The caption on his University of Wisconsin yearbook photograph was prophetic: “Of matchless swiftness,” it reads, quoting the ancient Greek author Homer, “but of silent pace.”
George Coleman Poage early in life seemed to excel at most everything, be it in the classroom or on the track, despite being black in the still-rigid racial roles of the late 1800s and early 1900s.
He appears to be an argument both for nature and nurture, a man whose intellectual and athletic gifts were able to flourish with an affluent La Crosse family that, atypical for the times, encouraged the housekeeper’s talented children to gain as much education as possible.
Poage would become the 1899 salutatorian at La Crosse High School, now Central, while setting a host of track records. He added to that high school success at the University of Wisconsin, earning a history degree and becoming the Big Ten’s first black track champion.
Then, in 1904, Poage won bronze in two hurdle events at the third Olympiad in St. Louis, the first black athlete to medal in a modern Olympics.
“A true scholar-athlete, from the beginning,” said David Waters, an associate professor in sport management at Viterbo University who has studied Poage in recent years.
His achievements would seem to cement Poage’s place in history, in La Crosse and beyond. A local newspaper in 1913 named him “perhaps the greatest athlete that was ever developed in this city.”
Yet his name faded with the decades, as his ties to La Crosse grew more distant. It wasn’t until this year the city renamed Hood Park for Poage, more than a century after his Olympic accomplishments.
The man of “matchless swiftness” for his time had fallen to “silent pace” by 1914, dropping into anonymity. Poage would end his days as a retired postal worker in 1962 and be buried next to his mother in a grave without a headstone.
Four local historians who researched Poage’s life say there are gaps in his story that might never be filled. He was an educated man once known for his skills in oratory, writing, debate and drama, yet virtually nothing written by
Poage has surfaced. A lifelong bachelor, 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,” said Bruce Mouser, a retired University of Wisconsin-
La Crosse professor who has amassed boxes of materials on Poage. “He’s still a mystery to me.”
‘A true scholar-athlete’
George Poage’s family moved to La Crosse in 1884 from Hannibal, Mo., when he was 4, with his parents originally employed by the Pettibone family. His sister, Lulu Belle, married a coachman for wealthy lumberman and railroad investor Jason Easton; Poage’s father, James, appears to have worked in the Eastons’ stables as well.
But after Lulu Belle died in 1887 and then James Poage and their youngest son the next year, widow Annie Poage and her two surviving children joined the household of Mary and Lucian Easton, Jason’s son.
Annie Poage later would tell a grandchild which would lift me ‘above the crowd’ enabling me to ‘be somebody,’” according to a report local art historian Margaret Lichter prepared for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department when the Hood Park name change was being considered.
His mother likely is where Poage got his intense drive, Mouser said. The Eastons apparently shared that respect for learning, giving the Poages relatively unfettered access both to their home and library, Mouser said. There’s some indication they might even have financially assisted Poage in attending UW from 1899 to 1904, after he finished second in his high school class.
The first black athlete to run for UW, Poage was promoted to varsity track as a sophomore and became the team’s star, winning or placing in multiple events, mostly sprints and hurdles. As with high school, Poage seemed to handle the trailblazer role seamlessly – the Milwaukee Sentinel described him after an AAU championship in which he won the 440 yard run as “the most popular athlete of the meet.”
When his coach was called out of town midway through the 1902 season, he put Poage in charge of the team, the Daily Cardinal newspaper later reported.
“That’s outstanding,” Waters said. “Blows me away a little bit.”
Poage kept pace on the academic side as well, graduating in 1903 with a history degree – his senior thesis was, “An Investigation into the Economic Condition of the Negro in the State of Georgia During the Period of 1860-1900” – then doing post-graduate studies while he still had a year of track eligibility at UW, with the athletic department creating a job as a football trainer to help fund his classes.
He left UW with Big 10 titles in the 440-yard dash and 220-yard hurdles, plus the ability to speak and read five languages, including ancient Greek and Latin, the historians said.
“You sense he was determined to excel,” Lichter said, “and he did.”
His appearance at the St. Louis Olympics would come only months later and in the face of calls for black athletes to boycott because black spectators would be confined to separate areas, both at the games and later the World’s Fair.
Yet Poage chose to compete in four events. Like much about Poage, the historians can only speculate on his reasons for running, as nothing remains to explain why he bypassed the boycott.
His pair of bronzes would come in the 200- and 400-meter low hurdles, the latter just barely being the historic first medal by a black athlete, as Joseph Stadler of Cleveland would win silver in the standing high jump later that same day.
Life off the track
Poage remained in the St. Louis area after the Olympics, serving as a school principal for a year before joining the faculty at Charles Sumner High School, the first such institution for blacks west of the Mississippi River. He taught English composition, English literature and Latin, plus handled extracurricular activities such as public speaking, debates and theater productions, according to a former Sumner student, the late Dr. Julia Davis.
Davis, whose name is on a St. Louis public library, wrote in 1959 that Poage “had the rare ability of discovering talented teenagers and to train them along the lines of their talent,” according to Lichter.
Yet Poage left Sumner and teaching in 1914, supposedly moving to a farm in Minnesota. Davis wrote her former teacher had purchased the farm, but no land records have been found, the historians said. While they have speculated the land might have belonged to the Eastons, this period “presents an odd gap in Poage’s history,” as Lichter termed it in her report.
Gaps like these have made much of Poage’s later years “a mystery,” said Mouser and Ed Hill, a retired UW-La Crosse archivist who has also done research on Poage.
They know Poage and his mother, who had been living in Denver with her daughter, Nellie, moved to Chicago in 1920, where according to Davis’ report he worked in a restaurant before joining the U.S. Postal Service four years later.
Though considered a well-paying job for a black man in those times, it didn’t seem to tap Poage’s academic background. Yet it would remain his career until he retired in 1953 at age 73, a year after his mother’s death.
Davis wrote that Poage had been invited to some Sumner events but always declined, according to a 2004 article on Poage by June Wuest Becht for the Missouri Historical Society’s Gateway Heritage magazine.
Hill did speak with Poage’s niece and nephew, Nellie’s children, who both described him as a kindly man and their favorite uncle.
“They liked him very much, they considered him a decent man,” Hill said. “They had a high regard for him.” But they, too, now are gone, taking with them the last true family impressions of Poage.
No copy has been found of his UW senior thesis, Mouser said. Annie Poage was known to have kept a scrapbook, journal and other materials about her son but those have disappeared as well.
Poage taught oratory and English composition, yet little written record of his thoughts or views have surfaced, Mouser said.
That, and the relatively short time he and his family spent in La Crosse, might partially explain why he slipped into obscurity, Mouser said. How, as Waters noted, “I went to college here and had been here a number of years and I’d never heard of him.”
The Olympian who made sure his mother’s grave had a proper headstone when she died in 1952 has none of his own, Waters said. He’s hoping a fundraiser can be started to change that.
Hill and Mouser tried for years to get something in La Crosse designated to commemorate Poage. Now, they hope the newly renamed George C. Poage Park will trigger new interest in this long-overlooked figure from the city’s past.
“La Crosse,” Hill said, “needs to honor this man.”