Pieces Of AIDS Quilt Blanket Nation's Capital

Jun 27, 2012
Originally published on June 27, 2012 7:06 pm

The AIDS Memorial Quilt is too big to display all in one piece. Since 1987, it has grown to more than 48,000 panels that honor the lives of more than 94,000 people who have died of AIDS. The last time the whole quilt was shown together was in 1996, on the National Mall. Now it's back in Washington, D.C., for its 25th anniversary.

Because of its size — put together, the whole quilt would stretch more than 50 miles — it's being displayed in pieces all over the city. Hundreds of quilt panels, made by the friends and families of those who have died, have been spread out on the National Mall, each one measuring 3 feet by 6 feet — the size of a human grave. Volunteers will rotate the panels, featuring more than 8,000 every day.

Julie Rhoad is executive director of the NAMES Project Foundation, which preserves, displays and collects new panels for the quilt. She says that in the late '80s and early '90s, the quilt grew by up to 11,000 panels a year. Now, it's around one or two a day.

Rhoad says she would love to find the AIDS Memorial Quilt a home where it could serve as a permanent reminder that those who have died are not just statistics — they were real people.

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And I'm Audie Cornish.

The AIDS Memorial Quilt has grown too big to display together in one place. It honors the lives of over 94,000 people who died of AIDS with panels made by friends and family. The entire quilt was shown together in 1996 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Now, it's back for its 25th anniversary, this time displayed all over the city, as we hear from NPR's Neda Ulaby.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: There are hundreds of quilt panels spread on the National Mall, each one 3 feet by 6 feet, the size of a human grave.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: These are the names of our dead: Gary Moonert, Marvin Feldman, Douglas Lowery...

ULABY: There's a reading like this whenever the quilt is shown.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: ...Reggie Hightower.

ULABY: One square is shiny purple satin. Others are covered with rainbow flags, American flags and red quilted hearts.

KATIE LAUDERDALE: That's Uncle Eric. Your Uncle Eric was...

ULABY: Katie Lauderdale brought her two young daughters to see the quilt. Her brother Eric Phifer died in San Francisco when he was only 30. The minute she starts talking, the tears begin too.

LAUDERDALE: It's so overwhelming. I mean, he's been dead for 20 years, and it's still hard. And you look at this, and you realize that each one of these people was somebody who was very loved.

ULABY: Phifer's panel was part of the quilt that if put completely together would stretch more than 50 miles.

JULIE RHOAD: In the early years, we were just sewing as fast as we could.

ULABY: Julie Rhoad runs The Names Project. It collects the panels, preserves and displays them. She says in the late 1980s and early '90s, they received up to 11,000 a year. Now, it's more like one or two a day. The quilt is shown around the country in small pieces, around 1,000 different displays. Rhoad says, these days, they can focus on a specific community.

RHOAD: If we are sending quilt into a synagogue, it would make the most sense to have Jewish-themed quilt go out to the synagogue. It makes the most sense to have Afro-centric quilt go into the black church.

ULABY: When the quilt started in 1987, most of the panels remembered gay men, some so closeted, their quilts only noted their first names. That more or less stopped for a while, but Rhoad says the quilt reflects changes in HIV demographics.

RHOAD: It shows up that we have first-name-only panels starting to come in again in African-American population.

ULABY: Rhoad would love to find the AIDS Memorial Quilt a home where it could serve as a permanent reminder...

RHOAD: never leave a population uncared for.

ULABY: The quilt was meant as a reminder that those who died from HIV and AIDS were not statistics. They were people.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: ...Chris Duprey, Felix Velarde Munoz, Harry...

ULABY: Twenty-five years and thousands of deaths after it started, in many ways, the AIDS quilt has not changed at all. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.