Photograph by Zach Wolfe
To call Andrew Young’s life amazing is an understatement. The highlight reel: civil rights crusader, mayor of Atlanta, Georgia congressman, ambassador to the United Nations. Today, in his role as cochairman of GoodWorks International, a global consulting company, and as founder of the Andrew Young Foundation, he continues to travel the world (he was hard to track down for this story, for instance, given an expedition to Kenya).
The seeds of his global perspective were planted more than a half century ago, not in his history-making positions as a top aide to Martin Luther King Jr. or as the first black Georgian elected to Congress since Reconstruction but rather through programs at the Dryades Street YMCA in segregated New Orleans. As Young recalled in the memoir An Easy Burden, the Dryades YMCA’s director, William Mitchell, ran programs that emphasized the accomplishments of African Americans as well as a connection with Africa. Mitchell “was the first black American I knew to travel to Africa regularly,” Young wrote. “I think of him now as a man ahead of his time.”
Young’s parents were strong supporters of the Y, and the future mayor and his kid brother, Walter, spent plenty of time there. And after the brothers moved to Atlanta in the early 1960s, the family began frequenting their new local facility. This month, the Young brothers celebrate the family’s century of membership in and involvement with the YMCA—and Walter’s seventy-fifth birthday—with a gala fundraiser and family heritage day at the Andrew and Walter Young Family YMCA in the Youngs’ Southwest Atlanta neighborhood. The event, scheduled for August 22, will feature appearances by notables such as Hank Aaron; tickets ($75 for adults; $25 for youth) can be purchased at the Y (404-523-9622). “We’ve always believed in the role the YMCA can play in the community, and our family has been committed to supporting it,” says Walter.
In the segregated South where the brothers Young grew up, the YMCA was much more than a place to work out. With restaurants, hotels, auditoriums, and convention centers off-limits to blacks, the Y—which was not integrated until 1963—served as a gathering place for meetings, concerts, and educational programs. It was often one of the few places traveling African Americans could be assured of a place to spend the night. Andrea Young, Andrew’s daughter, recalls spending a lot of time as a girl at Atlanta’s Ollie Street Y (now called the Joseph B. Whitehead branch), which then had the only indoor pool accessible to blacks. “Dr. King liked to swim as well, and he and my dad would bring all us children there,” she recalls. “It was one of those places that was a part of your life.”
The Andrew and Walter Young branch of the Y offers a spectrum of programs beyond exercise, ranging from teen mentoring to a preschool. “Families need a lot of support, so this is what makes the Y helpful,” says Andrea Young. “It’s still an important meeting place for adult groups. The great majority of people of whatever background can’t afford a country club, but the Y can accommodate whatever people want or need.”
This article originally appeared in the August 2009 issue.