First imagined by gay rights activist Cleve Jones in 1985, the AIDS Memorial Quilt—with 1,920 individual panels, each inscribed with the name of a person lost to AIDS—was displayed for the first time on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on October 11, 1987. The Quilt then went on a tour of the country before returning to D.C. in October 1988 with more than 6,000 new panels. Since then, the AIDS Quilt has accumulated more than 50,000 panels and is available to view online in its entirety, serving as a lasting memorial to those who died of AIDS. In its first 20 years, the Quilt was viewed by more than 15 million people and has raised more than $3 million for AIDS service organizations.
A Vision of Incredible Clarity
Long-time San Francisco gay rights activist Cleve Jones first envisioned the AIDS Quilt in 1985.
After eight months away, Jones returned to San Francisco for the annual candlelight march commemorating politicians and gay rights advocates Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, who were assassinated on November 27, 1978. But when he visited the famed Castro district, he was struck by all the friends and familiar neighborhood faces who had been lost to AIDS.
To honor AIDS victims and force the public to recognize the disease, Jones and friend Joseph Durant passed around poster boards and Magic Markers at the march, instructing everyone to write down the name of someone killed by AIDS. At the end of the march, the community plastered the posters on the façade of an old federal building.
The resulting patchwork of white squares, each with handwritten names in script or block letters, resembled a quilt, which brought Jones warm memories of home and family. As he writes in his memoir Stitching a Revolution, "And as I scanned the patchwork, I saw it—as if a Technicolor slide had fallen into place. Where before there had been a flaking gray wall, now there was a vivid picture and I could see quite clearly the National Mall, and the dome of Congress and a quilt spread out before it—a vision of incredible clarity."
Growing the NAMES Project
Jones and volunteers formed the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt to make this vision a reality. But achieving this goal would require recruiting many more volunteers, and recruiting more volunteers hinged on positive publicity.
The 1987 San Francisco gay and lesbian pride festival provided a means to reach out to hundreds of people, and support by then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein bolstered the movement. NAMES got another big break when Neiman Marcus created and displayed 41 panels, including one for an employee who died of AIDS, in the San Francisco store's 40-foot-high front window.
In the summer 1987, NAMES leased an empty storefront with no money, little supplies, and about 100 panels. They taped a wish list on the front door for the supplies they needed, and the donations soon flowed in.
The workshop became abuzz with activity, with volunteers from all walks of life. NAMES' Mike Smith ran the day-to-day operations of the workshop while Jones toured cities (on the dime of rich friends and flight attendants) to spread the movement far and wide.
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National news venues, including the New Yorker and People, published articles about the project, sparking people from across the country to begin sending panels to NAMES to commemorate their loved ones.
The First AIDS Quilt Display
By September 15, NAMES had 1,920 panels, each of which they hemmed to exactly 3x6 feet (representing the size of a grave) and sewed into 12x12 squares. Some panels were plain with black lettering, others featured gold lamé and rhinestones. They were comprised of a wide range of materials and included countless mementos, everything from locks of hair to tuxedos to teddy bears.
On the morning of October 11, 1987, a team of 48 volunteers unfolded the panels on the National Mall, the space secured thanks to efforts by Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi. Half a million people visited the Quilt during its inaugural weekend display.
The resulting publicity, including a television profile of Jones by ABC News Anchor Peter Jennings, spurred others to carry on the project across the globe, humanizing the thousands of lives lost to AIDS. NAMES then embarked on a four-month, 20-city, national tour for the Quilt in the spring and summer of 1988. The tour raised nearly $500,000 for AIDS service organizations and garnered more than 6,000 new panels from visited cities.
A Global Movement
In October 1988, the Quilt returned to Washington, D.C. with 8,288 panels. With grant funding from the World Health Organization, NAMES travelled 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 Quilt's global impact. That year also saw a second, bigger North American Quilt tour and HBO's documentary Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt winning the 1989 Academy Award for Best Documentary.
In 1993, NAMES members marched with the Quilt in President Bill Clinton's inaugural parade. The Clintons attended the October 1996 display of the Quilt on the National Mall, where an estimated 1.2 million people came to view it.
The Quilt was displayed at the National Mall for the last time in 2012 as part of the 25th anniversary of the NAMES Project. At this event, a collaboration with the Smithsonian Museum's American Folklife Festival, the entire Quilt was displayed over two-weeks, with 1,500 blocks of panels on display each day. The International AIDS Conference immediately followed the event, and parts of the Quilt were displayed at more than 60 locations in the D.C. 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 in by people from across globe now live 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 died of AIDS, according to Jones. The AIDS Quilt is now too large to be displayed all at once. However, the National AIDS Memorial, in partnership with the AIDS Quilt Touch Team, produced an interactive virtual version of the Quilt that anyone can view online.
The AIDS Quilt is the largest piece of community folk art in the world, the premiere symbol of the AIDS pandemic, and a living memorial to those that died during the height of the pandemic.