YMCA Washington DC History | YMCA Virginia & Maryland


History of Washington D.C. YMCA

Imagine Washington, DC in 1852. The city was brimming with saloons, gambling dens and crime. Apart from the Library of Congress, there were no public libraries or reading rooms. Thomas Duncan, a Treasury Department employee, had read with keen interest an article on the growth and activities of the London YMCA (founded in 1844). He and his two closest friends, William Langdon and William Rhees, saw a dire need for such wholesome social and recreational activities in the nation’s capital.

With the help of 60 young men, they opened the YMCA of the City of Washington – just one year after the first YMCA was established in the U.S. Their mission was to elevate the “spiritual and moral condition” of their fellows in a “crude, raw and highly transient city of 40,000…where vice, alcoholism, delinquency and crime defied imagination.” One year later, Rev. Anthony Bowen made an unprecedented impact in civil rights by organizing the first-ever “Colored YMCA.” YMCA Anthony Bowen was a social and cultural center for Washington’s African-American community throughout the 1900s.

Today, the Y engages more than 10,000 neighborhoods across the U.S. As the nation’s leading nonprofit committed to helping people and communities to learn, grow and thrive, our contributions are both far-reaching and intimate—from influencing our nation’s culture during times of profound social change to the individual support we provide an adult learning to read.

By nurturing the potential of every child and teen, improving the nation’s health and well-being, and supporting and serving our neighbors, the Y ensures that everyone has the opportunity to become healthier, more confident, connected and secure.

  • In 1852, the YMCA of the City of Washington was formed at 10th and E Streets, NW.
  • The first Y for African Americans was founded in Washington, DC in 1853 by Anthony Bowen, a slave who purchased his freedom from a plantation owner.
  • The Y has been known as a place of shelter and support during wartime. In 1864, in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed the official charter for the YMCA of the City of Washington.
  • The Y began incorporating wellness and physical fitness as a core focus in the 1860s. In 1869, a YMCA in Washington, DC was one of the first to build a gymnasium.
  • Camping became a cornerstone of the Y’s programming in 1885. Today, there are more than a dozen camp programs in the national capital area, with countless themes and activities.
  • Can you imagine sports without basketball? Thanks to James Naismith, basketball was invented in 1891 at the International YMCA Training School.
  • Volleyball was created in 1896 at the Y by blending elements of basketball, tennis and handball.
  • YMCA Camp Letts was founded in 1906 with 17 boys on five acres of land.
  • In 1909, the radical idea of group swimming lessons was first thought of in answer to a YMCA campaign to “teach every man and boy in North America” to swim.
  • Father’s Day was invented by the Y in 1910 to recognize the significant role that male role models play in our communities.
  • In 1936, the YMCA Youth & Government program was founded to help high school students understand and participate in the legislative process. Our local chapter formed in 2001.
  • During World War II, the Y and five other national organizations founded the United Service Organizations for National Defense, today known as the USO.
  • Many African American Ys became meeting places and rallying points for the Civil Rights movement. In 1967, racial discrimination was banned in all YMCAs.
  • Let’s get physical! Dance exercise classes started at the Y in 1970, leading to a boom in aerobics offerings across the U.S.
  • To emphasize the importance of play in keeping kids healthy and happy, the Y organized the first nationwide Healthy Kids Day in 1992, the nation’s largest health day for kids and families.
  • In 1994, celebrating a rich history of character development, the Y defined character as demonstration of four core values: caring, honesty, respect and responsibility.
  • In 2004, the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington created the PHD (Physical, Healthy & Driven) program to combat the staggering rise in childhood obesity and inactivity.
  • First Lady Michelle Obama launched her “Let’s Move” campaign against childhood obesity at the Alexandria YMCA in 2010.
  • In 2010, two new Y programs were launched to respond to our community’s needs: Fit & Well Seniors, a wellness program that is unique to the needs of DC’s senior residents, and YMCA Diabetes Prevention Program, which helps people with prediabetes take control of their health.