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The AIDS Memorial Quilt

In the early days of the AIDS epidemic fear, confusion, anger, and sadness swept over the communities affected by the disease. But amid the despair there was a determination to remember those lost. In a 1985 candlelight vigil in San Francisco, activist Cleve Jones asked those in attendance to write the names of loved ones who had died of AIDS on placards. When these were later taped to a wall, the resemblance to a patchwork quilt provided a spark of inspiration, and in 1987 the AIDS Memorial Quilt was born.

Friends and families immediately responded with submissions of Quilt panels. Each was designed to represent a person’s life and was intended to insure that history would remember their names. These names were read aloud at every Quilt display, and the number of displays grew. The Quilt has crossed the country repeatedly and has visited the National Mall in Washington, DC, four times. The most recent display, in 1996, covered the entire Mall, from the Capitol to the Washington Monument.

The Quilt began with one 6’ by 3’ panel. Today, it consists of over 46,000 panels memorializing the names of over 91,000 people. Weighing 54 tons, it covers 1,285,000 square feet. As each panel is approximately the size of a human grave, the parallels between the size and the death toll are staggering to consider. Yet, the quilt represents less than twenty percent of the AIDS deaths in the United States.

As the demographics of the disease shifted, the turn of the millennium found the South having the highest number of infections per capita. In response to the changing times and the changing epidemic, the NAMES Project Foundation, the caretaker of the Quilt, moved to Atlanta in 2001. Atlanta’s prominence in the field of public health and rich history of social justice provided an ideal backdrop for the Quilt.

The Quilt still grows, as new panels are added daily. Those interested in commemorating a loved one with a panel can find tips and submission details at www.aidsquilt.org. The NAMES Project Foundation makes its facilities and materials available to panel-makers in the Atlanta community and also hosts instructional workshops. For details, call 404-688-5500.

A panel simply bearing the words “The Last One” hangs from the rafters in the AIDS Memorial Quilt’s warehouse. The NAMES Project Foundation hopes that one day this panel can be sewn in. But until then, the largest community art project in the world continues to expand right here in Atlanta. And anyone can have a hand in crafting this breathtaking memorial.


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