In June of 1987, a small group of strangers gathered in a San Francisco storefront to document the lives they feared history would neglect. Their goal was to create a memorial for those who had died of AIDS, and to thereby help people understand the devastating impact of the disease. This meeting of devoted friends and lovers served as the foundation of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.
Today the Quilt is a powerful visual reminder of the AIDS pandemic. More than 44,000 individual 3-by-6-foot memorial panels — most commemorating the life of someone who has died of AIDS — have been sewn together by friends, lovers and family members. This is the story of how the Quilt began…
The Quilt was conceived in November of 1985 by long-time San Francisco gay rights activist Cleve Jones. Since the 1978 assassinations of gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, Jones had helped organize the annual candlelight march honoring these men. While planning the 1985 march, he learned that over 1,000 San Franciscans had been lost to AIDS. He asked each of his fellow marchers to write on placards the names of friends and loved ones who had died of AIDS. At the end of the march, Jones and others stood on ladders taping these placards to the walls of the San Francisco Federal Building. The wall of names looked like a patchwork quilt.
Public response to the Quilt was immediate. People in the U.S. cities most affected by AIDS — Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco — sent panels to the San Francisco workshop. Generous donors rapidly supplied sewing machines, equipment and other materials, and many volunteered tirelessly.
THE INAUGURAL DISPLAY
On October 11, 1987, the Quilt was displayed for the first time on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., during the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. It covered a space larger than a football field and included 1,920 panels. Half a million people visited the Quilt that weekend.
The overwhelming response to the Quilt’s inaugural display led to a four-month, 20-city, national tour for the Quilt in the spring of 1988. The tour raised nearly $500,000 for hundreds of AIDS service organizations. More than 9,000 volunteers across the country helped the seven-person traveling crew move and display the Quilt. Local panels were added in each city, tripling the Quilt’s size to more than 6,000 panels by the end of the tour.
THE QUILT GROWS
The Quilt returned to Washington, D.C. in October of 1988, when 8,288 panels were displayed on the Ellipse in front of the White House. Celebrities, politicians, families, lovers and friends read aloud the names of the people represented by the Quilt panels. The reading of names is now a tradition followed at nearly every Quilt display.
In 1989 a second tour of North America brought the Quilt to 19 additional cities in the United States and Canada. That tour and other 1989 displays raised nearly a quarter of a million dollars for AIDS service organizations. In October of that year, the Quilt was again displayed on the Ellipse in Washington, D.C.
By 1992, the AIDS Memorial Quilt included panels from every state and 28 countries. In October 1992, the entire Quilt returned to Washington, D.C.. and in January 1993 The NAMES Project was invited to march in President Clinton’s inaugural parade.
The last display of the entire AIDS Memorial Quilt was in October of 1996 when The Quilt covered the entire National Mall in Washington, D.C. The 1,000 newest blocks – those blocks received at or since the October 1996 display – were displayed the weekend of June 26, 2004 on The Ellipse in Washington D.C. in observance of National HIV Testing Day.
THE QUILT TODAY
Today there are NAMES Project chapters across the United States and independent Quilt affiliates around the world. Since 1987, over 14 million people have visited the Quilt at thousands of displays worldwide. Through such displays, the NAMES Project Foundation has raised over $3 million for AIDS service organizations throughout North America.
The Washington, D.C. displays of October 1987, 1988, 1989, 1992 and 1996 are the only ones to have featured the Quilt in its entirety,
The Quilt was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 and remains the largest community art project in the world. The Quilt has been the subject of countless books, films, scholarly papers, articles, and theatrical, artistic and musical performances, including “Common Threads: Stories From The Quilt” which won the Academy Award as the best feature-length documentary film of 1989.
The Quilt has redefined the tradition of quilt-making in response to contemporary circumstances. A memorial, a tool for education and a work of art, the Quilt is a unique creation, an uncommon and uplifting response to the tragic loss of human life.
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Click here for more information on The Last One, a feature-length documentary tracing the history of The AIDS Memorial Quilt.
The NAMES Project stages Quilt displays each year in a variety of venues in hopes of making HIV/AIDS real and immediate.
Hosting a display is easy, affordable and important. Join the effort to educate and inspire by hosting a display of The AIDS Memorial Quilt in your community.
You don't have to be an artist or sewing expert to create a moving personal tribute remembering a life lost to AIDS. Find support and step by step instructions here.