History of the YMCA: Strengthening Communities for 160 Years

The Y is the organization that…

  • …saw to and met the practical and spiritual needs of young men flocking to London during the Industrial Revolution.
  • …has served the military and military families in every U.S. conflict since the Civil War.
  • …inspired the formation of the USO, Peace Corps and Father’s Day.
  • …met immigrants coming off the boats at Ellis Island to offer services and support in making a new life.
  • …began the first night school and English as a Second Language course. …invented group swimming lessons, basketball, volleyball, and racquetball, and gave them to the community.
  • …provided quality and affordable childcare when women began joining the workforce in droves.
  • …began values education at a time of social unrest.

A Historical Timeline:


George Williams joins with 11 friends to organize the first Young Men’s Christian Association in industrialized London. The Y offers Bible study and prayer to help keep young men off the streets.

Dec. 29, 1851 - Sea captain and missionary Thomas Valentine Sullivan and six colleagues found the first Y at the Old South Church in Boston to create a safe - home away from home for sailors and merchants.


Freed slave Anthony Bowen starts the first black Y in Washington, D.C. In the following decades, more Ys are established to serve diverse populations, including Asians and American Indians in San Francisco and Flandreau, S.D., respectively.


In the absence of public schools, early Ys provide care for children of the poor through free Sunday and mission schools.

The first Student Ys organize at universities in Tennessee, Virgini, and Wisconsin to foster the leadership development of college students.

The Cincinnati YMCA offers the nation’s first English as a Second Language course for German immigrants.


A conference with President Abraham Lincoln leads to the recruitment of 5,000 Y volunteers who serve as surgeons, nurses and chaplains during the Civil War.


Chicago’s Farwell Hall, the first known Y dormitory, is completed, offering safe and affordable housing to young men moving to cities from rural areas.


The first Railroad YMCA is organized in Cleveland as a partnership between the Y and railroad companies to offer lodging and meeting space for railroad workers.


Dr. Luther Gulick revolutionizes the American approach to health and fitness with the idea that man’s well-being depends on a unity of body, mind and spirit. The same year, Boston YMCA staffer Robert J. Roberts coins the term -body building‖ and develops exercise classes that anticipate today’s fitness workouts.


The Y starts Camp Dudley, America’s first known summer camp, at Orange Lake, N.Y. Its aim is to help kids build skills and grow in self-reliance while making new friends. Over the years, the Y creates more family and year-round camps and expands their focus to include environmental stewardship, academics, arts and leadership.


World Service is founded to raise awareness of and financial support for the powerful work of the global Y movement.

The Chapman, Kan. YMCA develops the Hi-Y club for high-school boys to promote Christian character through sportsmanship and scholastic achievement. The service clubs ultimately become the -four fronts‖ program-Hi-Y, Jr. Hi-Y, Tri Hi-Y, and Gra-Y-and serve the youth of all ages.


Physical education teacher James Naismith invents basketball at the International YMCA Training School in Springfield, Mass. Later, Y instructor William Morgan blends elements of basketball, tennis and handball into a less strenuous game called -mintonette,‖ later known as -volley ball.‖


Large-scale evening classes begin at the Boston YMCA to offer adults vocational and liberal arts courses.


Answering a Y campaign -to teach every man and boy in North America‖ to swim, George Corsan comes to the Detroit YMCA to teach the skill using unique methods: group lessons and lessons on land as a confidence builder.


Throughout World War I, the Y provides welfare services for the military. More than 5,000 women serve the Y in U.S. and France. By war’s end, the Y, through the United War Work Council, has operated 1,500 canteens in the U.S and France; set up 4,000 Y huts for recreation and religious services; and raised more than $235 million ($4.3 billion today) for relief work.


Based on the Native American family model, the parent-child program Y-Indian Guides starts at the St. Louis YMCA to foster the companionship of father and son. The program expands to include mothers and daughters and eventually evolves into Adventure Guides.


Sponsored by the New York State YMCA, the Youth and Government program begins in Albany to encourage high-school youth to understand and participate in the government process.


During World War II, the Y, along with five other national voluntary organizations, found the United Service Organizations (USO).


On Dec. 10, Y leader John R. Mott is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the Y's role in increasing global understanding and for its humanitarian efforts.


As more women begin to enter the workforce, the Y responds with full-time child development centers to support the needs of these new working parents.


Dr. Leo B. Marsh starts the Black Achievers program at the Harlem (N.Y.) Branch YMCA The program helps African-American teens improve academic standards and boost self-esteem.


Y-USA and the NBA Players Association start the Youth Basketball Association (YBA) to create programs that stress abilities and teamwork over winning at any cost.


The Government Relations and Public Policy Office is formed in the nation’s capital to champion the Y cause with lawmakers and work with Ys to advocate for the kids, families and communities they serve.


Ys conduct the first national Healthy Kids Day, emphasizing the importance of play in keeping kids healthy and happy and enhancing their developmental skills. It becomes an annual April event.


Y-USA establishes Arts and Humanities as a national program, spotlighting the importance of arts to the development of a young person’s imagination, critical thinking, communication and social skills.


The Y responds to several world crises—Sept. 11 (2001), Pacific Rim tsunami (2004), Hurricane Katrina (2005) and the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile (2010)—through fund-raising, rebuilding and programs to rekindle hope in the affected communities.


On Saturday, June 2, 1,200 Ys host 700 YMCA World’s Largest Run™ events in the country’s first synchronized run/walk across all U.S. time zones. The event celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Y in America and highlights the importance of physical activity for both kids and parents.


The Armed Services YMCA and Y-USA partner with the Department of Defense in the Military Outreach Initiative, which funds memberships and child care for families facing the hardship of military deployment.


First Lady Michelle Obama chooses the Y as the venue to launch her ―Let’s Move‖ campaign against childhood obesity. Her choice signals the Y’s reputation among national policymakers as an important partner in preventing chronic disease.

To learn more about the Y, visit YMCA.net