This year the AIDS Memorial Quilt moved back to San Francisco leaving Atlanta, where it’s been housed since 2002, but its celebratory return was interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, changing plans and giving one of the quilt’s founders a new purpose.

A media event was held last November in Washington, D.C., to announce plans for the future of the AIDS Memorial Quilt and its archives. The overall goal of the plans is to make sure it’s all accessible and secure for generations to come.

But those at the event also learned that the quilt was returning to San Francisco after being housed in Atlanta for the past 20 years. The quilt’s panels have been temporarily displayed all over the country, including Miami Beach and each year for World AIDS Day at Compass in Lake Worth.

The quilt is now in the care of the National AIDS Memorial in San Francisco and the NAMES Project Foundation. The AIDS Memorial took over the NAMES Project last year, and brought all the panels of the quilt on tractor-trailers to San Francisco this year.

Now in San Francisco, organizers wanted to give the quilt its largest-ever showing April 3, with a celebration at the National AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park.

The coronavirus pandemic halted those plans. Organizers are hopeful it can be rescheduled soon.

The D.C. event in November also highlighted new partners on the quilt, like the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, and honored its caretakers — including quilt founders Cleve Jones, Gert McMullin and Mike Smith.

Enduring symbol

The first panels of the quilt were created more than three decades ago during the height of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. A group of strangers had gathered at a San Francisco store to remember the names and lives of those they’d lost — names they didn’t want history to forget.

Today, the quilt is perhaps the most well-known visual reminder of the AIDS epidemic, and is considered the largest ongoing community folk art project in the world.

Its archives include biographies, correspondence, photographs, tributes, epitaphs, news clippings and artifacts.

It was Jones who had the idea 35 years ago to memorialize the lives lost and get people’s attention, and he also came up with the idea to create a quilt as a memorial. McMullin, Jones and Smith among the first volunteers to sew panels, which are still being made. The quilt became the lifelong work of McMillan, who still oversees the panels today.

At the time, many men who died of AIDS weren’t even able to have a funeral because of a widespread stigma.

AIDS death toll

• 700,000 Americans
• 32 million worldwide

“We in the LGBT community understood what was happening in the early 80s. We had to create systems of care and support ourselves,” Jones, 65, who co-founded the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, said in a recent People magazine interview.

He was a member of civil rights icon Harvey Milk’s team in San Francisco politics, played by Emile Hirsch in the movie “Milk.”

Another crisis comes

McMullin has made news in the Bay Area recently because she is now using leftover fabric from the panels to make coronavirus masks. Some of the fabric she’s using dates back to the 1980s.

For the past several months, she’s been sewing masks — more than 1,000 and counting — for frontline health care workers and those who are considered at-risk in the Bay Area.

“She is the mother of the quilt. It would never have come together if it was not for her. We all owe her an enormous debt,” Jones said in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle in May.

Even as state and local officials were discussing shelter-in-place orders and personal protection equipment inventories, McMullin started making masks.

“I would have never guessed that sewing would come up again,” McMullin said to the SF Chronicle. “When you think about a pandemic, and what are the kinds of things that people can do, sewing would not have been on my list.”

For decades, throughout multiple cities, McMullin had carried the leftover and unused fabric from quilt construction.

AIDS Memorial Quilt

•  Contains more than 50,000 (3-by-6-foot) panels
•  Has 105,000 names
•  Measures 1.3 million feet
•  Weighs 54 tons
•  Archives feature 200,000 items

She said she makes up to 80 masks per day, giving them to hospitals, and nonprofits that help the homeless and other volunteers.

Her particular masks are in demand. They are double-lined with comfortable, cotton quilting material and can be worn alone, or have a sleeve to hold an N95 mask.

McMullin said she designed the masks in hopes that hospital workers could wash them and potentially preserve their personal protective equipment.

The SF Chronicle said the excess fabric dating back to the quilt’s beginnings includes many whimsical designs found on the AIDS quilt, like flamingos, children playing, giant red lips and mustaches.

“That fabric helped people heal before,” McMillan said in the interview. “Maybe it will still have some magic, I don’t know, to help people get through this.”


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