First imagined by gay rights activist Cleve Jones in 1985, the AIDS Memorial Quilt – with 1,920 individual panels, each bearing the name of a person lost to AIDS – was on display for the first time at the National Mall in Washington, DC on October 11. , 1987. The Quilt then toured the country before returning to Washington in October 1988 with over 6,000 new panels. Since then, the AIDS Quilt has accumulated over 50,000 panels and can be viewed online in its entirety, serving as a lasting memorial to those who have died of AIDS. In its first 20 years, the quilt was viewed by over 15 million people and raised over $ 3 million for AIDS service organizations.
A vision of incredible clarity
Cleve Jones, a longtime gay rights activist in San Francisco, first imagined the AIDS Quilt in 1985.
After an eight-month absence, Jones returned to San Francisco for the annual candle light march commemorating politicians and gay rights activists Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, who were assassinated on November 27, 1978. But when visited the famous neighborhood of Castro, he was struck by all the friends and familiar faces in the neighborhood who had been lost due to AIDS.
To honor AIDS victims and to force the public to recognize the disease, Jones and his friend Joseph Durant circulated display boards and magic markers during the walk, asking everyone to write the name of a person killed by AIDS. At the end of the march, the community pasted the posters on the facade of a former federal building.
The resulting patchwork of white squares, each with names handwritten in script or in capitals, resembled a quilt, which brought Jones warm memories of home and family. As he writes in his memoirs Sew a revolution, “And scanning the quilt, I saw it – like a Technicolor slide had fallen into place. Where before there had been a chipped gray wall, now there was a vivid image and I could see the National Mall, and the Dome of Congress and a quilt spread out in front of it – a vision of incredible clarity. “
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Development of the NAMES project
Jones and volunteers formed the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt to make this vision a reality. But to achieve this goal would require recruiting many more volunteers and recruiting more volunteers based on positive publicity.
The 1987 San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Pride Festival provided a means to reach hundreds of people, and the support of then-mayor Dianne Feinstein bolstered the movement. NAMES had another big break when Neiman Marcus created and displayed 41 signs, including one for an employee who died of AIDS, in the 40-foot-high front window of the San Francisco store.
In the summer of 1987, NAMES rented an empty display case with no money, few supplies, and around 100 signs. They recorded a wish list on the front door for the supplies they needed, and donations quickly poured in.
The workshop became a buzz of activity, with volunteers from all walks of life. Mike Smith of NAMES led the day-to-day operations of the workshop while Jones toured cities (at the cost of wealthy friends and flight attendants) to spread the movement around the world.
National news sites, including the New Yorker and People, published articles on the project, prompting people across the country to start sending signs to NAMES to commemorate loved ones.
The first AIDS quilt display
As of September 15, NAMES had 1,920 panels, each hemmed to exactly 3 x 6 feet (representing a person’s size) and sewn into 12 x 12 squares. Some panels were plain with black letters, of others were adorned with gold lamé and rhinestones. They were made from a wide range of materials and included countless keepsakes, from locks of hair to tuxedos to teddy bears.
On the morning of October 11, 1987, a team of 48 volunteers unfolded the signs on the National Mall, the safe space thanks to the efforts of Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi. Half a million people visited the Quilt during its inaugural weekend exhibit.
The resulting publicity, including a TV profile of Jones by ABC News presenter Peter Jennings, inspired others to continue the project across the world, humanizing the thousands of lives lost to AIDS. NAMES then embarked on a four-month nationwide quilting tour of 20 cities in the spring and summer of 1988. The tour raised nearly $ 500,000 for AIDS service organizations and raised over 6 000 new panels of cities visited.
A global movement
In October 1988, the quilt returned to Washington, DC with 8,288 panels. With a grant from the World Health Organization, NAMES traveled to eight countries to mark the first World AIDS Day on December 1, 1988.
The following year, more than 20 countries launched their own commemorative projects and Nancy Pelosi nominated Jones, Smith and NAMES for the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of the global impact of the quilt. That year also saw a second larger North American Quilt tour and the HBO documentary. Common Threads: Quilting Stories winning the Oscar for best documentary in 1989.
In 1993, members of NAMES marched with the quilt in President Bill Clinton’s inaugural parade. The Clintons attended the quilt’s October 1996 exhibit on the National Mall, where about 1.2 million people viewed it.
The quilt was last on display at the National Mall in 2012 as part of the 25th anniversary of the NAMES project. At this event, in conjunction with the American Folklife Festival at the Smithsonian Museum, the entire quilt was on display for two weeks, with 1,500 panel blocks on display each day. The International AIDS Conference immediately followed the event and parts of the quilt were on display in over 60 locations throughout the DC metro area.
A living memorial
The Quilt returned to San Francisco in November 2019 when the National AIDS Memorial became its permanent steward. The Quilt’s archival collection of 200,000 objects, documents, cards and letters sent by people around the world can now be found in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.
As of mid-2020, the quilt includes more than 50,000 panels that honor more than 105,000 people who have died of AIDS, according to Jones. The AIDS quilt is now too large to display at one time. However, the National AIDS Memorial, in partnership with the AIDS Quilt Touch team, has produced an interactive virtual version of the quilt that anyone can view online.
The AIDS Quilt is the world’s largest piece of community folk art, the first symbol of the AIDS pandemic, and a living memorial to those who died during the height of the pandemic.