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A brief history of the Y by Maya Shaloame

“Never doubt that a small, group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world...” -Margaret Mead, 1901-1978

George Williams was born October 11th, 1821. He was born on a farm in England, during a time when Antarctica was just discovered the year before and the first bicycles began to be used. When Williams was a young man, his family sent him to Bridgewater to begin working as an apprentice to a cloth seller. During 1837, he was converted and became an involved member at the Zion Congregational Church. After four years he moved to London and returned to working with cloth, and three years later he became the department manager.

Most likely during his time spent spreading the Gospel and seeking to convert individuals, Williams discovered how bad the conditions for young working men were in London. In the mid-nineteenth century, the city was intimidating as young men from the countryside migrated to the city to work twelve to fourteen hours, six days a week, and most lived crowded together in small rooms above the shops they worked in. Shocked by how bad the environment was, and wanting to help these young men, Williams gathered his eleven like-minded friends to establish a place where these men could pray and study the Bible in hopes they would be kept off the streets.

The Young Men’s Christian Organization meetings were held in a room in the dry goods firm of Hitchcock and Rogers. Williams’s boss, George Hitchcock, was one of the earliest contributors to the organization. George Hitchcock would later become Williams’s father-in-law in 1853, when George Williams married Helen Jane Maunder Hitchcock.

George Williams would later become Sir George Williams in 1894, when Queen Victoria of England knights him.

At twenty-two years old, Sir George Williams founded the first YMCA, and would soon inspire Thomas Valentine Sullivan to establish a YMCA in Boston, seven years later. Two years after that, a freed slave named Anthony Bowen established the first African-American YMCA in Washington, D.C. In the decades following the African-American YMCA’s creation, two other YMCAs are made to serve more diverse populations in the United States. By 1851, there were YMCAs in the United Kingdom, the United States of America, Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands.  Sir George Williams passed away on November 6th, 1905. He is commemorated by a stained-glass window in the main body of the Westminster Abbey church and is buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral.

In 1855, representatives from Europe and North America join together in Paris, to discuss creating a group of YMCAs that would encourage cooperation between individual YMCAs. This was the start of the World Alliance of YMCAs.

YMCAs everywhere would continue to grow and develop with the times, eventually serving women as well as men, serving military and military families in every U.S conflict since the Civil War. The YMCA inspired the Peace Corps, the United Service Organizations, and even Father’s Day. We met immigrants as they arrived on their boats in Ellis Island, offering support and services for creating a new life. We began night school, English as a Second Language courses, swimming lessons, basketball, volleyball, and racquetball and delivered them to the community. We saw women enter the workforce during World War II, gave affordable child care that focused on quality, and valued education at a time of social unrest.

The YMCA has been driven by its community since the very beginning. We serve our members, volunteers, and non-members with not just a dedication to teaching how to build a healthy spirit, mind, and body, but also giving everyone who walks through our doors now and in the future a sense of belonging.

Today, the YMCA is not just a gym, it is a community that has taught acceptance, love, leadership, and so many other things for 172 years, and will continue to do so.

A big thank you to the following:

  • Andrea Hinding, author of ‘Proud Heritage: A History in Pictures of the YMCA in the United States’
  • Sir George Williams

This article was written by one of our awesome volunteers, Maya Shaloame, who is currently a student at Austin High and serving in a historian role here at the TownLake Y.