October 11, 1987– The NAMES Project Memorial Quilt is shown for the first time.
The idea for a memorial quilt was conceived in 1985 by pioneering activist Cleve Jones during a candlelight march in remembrance of the 1978 murders of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. Jones had helped organize that annual candlelight march honoring Milk and Moscone. While planning the march, he learned that over 1,000 San Franciscans had been lost to HIV/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.
At that time, many people who died of HIV/AIDS-related causes did not receive funerals due to both the social stigma of HIV and the outright refusal by many funeral homes and cemeteries to handle the deceased’s remains. Lacking a memorial service or grave site, The Quilt was often the only opportunity friends and families had to remember and celebrate their loved ones’ lives.
The first showing of the Quilt was on this very day in 1987 on the National Mall in Washington DC. It covered a space larger than a football field with 1,920 panels (today it has over 49,000 panels). Over a three-day weekend, half a million people visited The Quilt.
It is enormous. Weighing more than 55 tons, it is the largest piece of community folk art in the world.
The Quilt was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. Common Threads: Stories From The Quilt won the Academy Award for Best Feature-Length Documentary that same year.
The NAMES Project Foundation was formed in 1987 as the custodian of The Quilt and its archives, and to foster healing, heighten awareness, and inspire action in the struggle against HIV/AIDS.
Today, the foundation has an archive with the more than 49,000 panels that make up The Quilt professionally photographed in both 4″x 5″ transparencies and 35mm negative formats, creating a permanent visual record of the most compelling symbol of the Plague. The images have been digitized and are available on the website. The process continues, and will remain ongoing as long as new panels are submitted and new blocks sewn together. Let’s hope there are less and less as each year passes.
Most of the panels are accompanied by letters, biographies and photos, all of which speak to the experience of life in the age of HIV/AIDS, documenting the effect on those lost and those left behind. They are included in the archive.
The National AIDS Memorial presents all 48,000 panels of the AIDS Memorial Quilt in an interactive experience. People around the world can experience the beauty of the Quilt and witness the love and stories stitched into each panel. I spent time today looking at the panels of people I worked with in the theatre and some long lost lovers. You can also, here.
Do you know someone remembered with a panel? I do. Too many.
You can “like” The Quilt on The Facebook and you help maintain The Quilt by going to http://www.aidsquilt.org/donate