The Y: Decades of Tradition

The Y is the nation’s leading nonprofit organization for youth development, healthy living and social responsibility. Today, the Y engages more than 10,000 neighborhoods across the U.S., ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to become healthier, more confident, connected and secure. The Y, which had a modest start in 1844 industrialized London, has become a pioneering force globally and in the U.S.

In the mid-1800s, London was a place of despair for men who migrated to the city to find jobs. The dangerous tenement housing troubled 22-year-old George Williams, who joined 11 friends to organize the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), a refuge from hazardous street life. The Y’s drive to meet needs was compelling, and its openness to members crossed the rigid lines separating social classes.

Years later, retired Boston sea captain Thomas Valentine Sullivan saw a need to create a safe “home away from home” for sailors and merchants. Inspired by the Y in England, he formed the first U.S. YMCA at the Old South Church in Boston on December 29, 1851.

Over the past 167 years, the Y has evolved into an organization accessible to all people, and financial assistance is offered to those who cannot afford membership or programs. Members, staff and volunteers include men, women and children of all ages and backgrounds. The Y’s contributions—both past and current—are far-reaching as evidenced by these highlights on the Y’s timeline. 

  • Y housing began in the 1860s. By 1940, rooms exceeded 100,000, more than any hotel chain. Andy Rooney, Dan Rather, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Jack Kerouac stayed at the Y.
  • In 1881, Boston Y staffer Robert Roberts coined “body building” and developed exercise classes. 
  • Camping became a cornerstone in 1885 when the Y started Camp Dudley, America’s first known summer camp program, at Orange Lake, N.Y.
  • In the 1890s, Y instructor William Morgan merged basketball, tennis and handball. In 1896, his invention became known as volleyball.
  • In 1891, James Naismith hung peach baskets to the bottom of a second-level running track and taught men his new game: basketball. It’s second only to soccer in popularity.
  • In 1893, evening classes began at the Boston Y. By 1950, Ys operated 20 colleges, many of which became institutions of higher learning.
  • In 1909, George Corsan arrived at the Detroit Y to teach swimming using radical methods: group lessons and confidence-building land lessons. He taught 800 boys to swim in four weeks.
  • In 1910, 25 Ys for African Americans were built in 23 cities. They included clean, safe rooms and eating facilities, which were a boon to black travelers in a segregated era.
  • During WWI, the Y operated 1,500 canteens, set up 4,000 recreation and religious huts and raised more than $235 million—equivalent to $4.3 billion today—for relief work.
  • During WWII, the Y and five other organizations founded the USO.
  • In 1950, Y volunteer Joe Sobek invented racquetball. Like previous Y inventors, Sobek was not paid; he bestowed his invention as a gift to all who play the game today.
  • Many Ys became rallying points for Civil Rights. In 1967, Ys banned racial discrimination.
  • In 1991, Y-USA formed the Public Policy Office in the nation’s capital. It champions the Y mission with lawmakers, and helps Ys advocate for kids, families and communities.
  • In 1992, Ys held the first Healthy Kids Day, the nation’s largest free health day for kids and families. An annual April event, it underscores play in keeping kids healthy and happy.
  • In 1998, Y-USA established the arts as a national program, spotlighting their importance to imagination, critical thinking, communication and social skills.
  • In the 1990s, baby boomers with families became prominent members. Ys created programs like family swim and fun night; providing positive opportunities to play and interact.
  • The Y responded to Sept. 11, the Pacific Rim tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and the Haiti earthquake through rebuilding programs that rekindled hope, especially among youth.
  • In 2004, before a U.S. Senate hearing, Y-USA launched Activate America, beginning a partnership with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Activate America is helping millions of people in more than 150 Y communities make healthy choices.
  • In 2008, the Armed Services YMCA and Y-USA partnered with the Department of Defense in the YMCA Military Outreach Initiative, which funds memberships for families facing deployment. 
  • Positioning the Y as a partner in preventing disease and childhood obesity, Y-USA garners the support of public officials. In 2010, First Lady Obama launched her “Let’s Move” campaign at a Y. 
  • In 2010, the Y revitalized its brand and began officially referring to itself by its most familiar name—the Y—for the first time.


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