ST. LOUIS – The 1904 Olympic games weren’t quite what we’re used to seeing today. While they were a pinnacle in the development of modern-day athletics, some believe the St. Louis games were segregated — possibly racist. So what happened?
There is some strange history attached to the 1904 St. Louis Olympics, mostly because of the so-called ‘Anthropology Days’
“They called them human zoo exhibits," said Larry Kindbom, head football coach at Washington University. "People from South African countries, Pygmies ... And they thought why not bring these people over and let them have their own way of showing who’s the biggest, fastest, strongest.”
Jody Sowell, director of exhibitions and research at the Missouri History Museum explained Anthropology Days as well.
“These were games where they took people from the ‘people exhibits’ at the fair and had them compete in sports they often knew nothing about, against white athletes to show the superiority of the white race," he said.
Certainly not a bright spot in St. Louis history, or American history for that matter. However, Anthropology Days weren’t an official part of the Olympics. They were part of the adjoining World’s Fair, also happening in St. Louis that summer.
In fact, the real 1904 Games had several key moments that helped social progress.
“The 1904 Olympics was the first time that an African American athlete won a medal. It was George Pogue, who would later go on to coach at Sumner High School," said Sowell.
It was also the first time black South Africans could compete.
And as for women? While it was only one event, they could compete in archery.
“Women’s suffrage wasn’t until 1920, so 16 years before women could even vote they were competing on U.S. soil for a championship," said Kindbom.
Could Olympic organizers have done better? Of course. But labeling the 1904 St. Louis Games as 'segregated' is a misconception. And it’s all because of the 1904 World Fair’s ‘Anthropology Days.’
“These [Anthropology Days] weren’t an official part of the Olympics," said Sowell. "But because they were held at the same time and part of the World’s Fair, the Olympics as a whole in St. Louis are often tainted by that.”