The AIDS Memorial Quilt remains a powerful symbol

It's monumental size mirrors the monumental effect AIDS has had on Atlanta—and the world's—LGBTQ+ community

AIDS memorial quilts laid out in front of the Washington Monument

Photograph courtesy of National Institutes of Health

In 2001, the NAMES Project, the nonprofit that maintains the iconic AIDS Memorial Quilt, announced that the 50,000-panel memorial that had been displayed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. several times, and also for the Pope in the heart of San Francisco’s Castro district, was leaving its San Francisco home and headed for Atlanta. With the loss of its lease in the California city, its chief curator moving to Atlanta, and potential collaborations with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Atlanta nonprofits, the organization felt the move made sense.

Inspired by community quilting bees aimed at rallying people over a common cause, activist Cleve Jones decided the quilt he made to honor his best friend in his San Francisco backyard could, and should, keep growing. What began with a group of strangers in a San Francisco storefront with little sewing equipment today weighs a total of 55 tons and contains more than 100,000 names. Friends, family, lovers, and strangers stitched colorful, personal, and heartfelt tribute panels measuring three feet by six feet—the approximate measurements of a grave, Jones says—that when stitched together create a 1.3 million square foot symbol as iconic as the red ribbon worn to raise awareness about the disease.

The quilt’s move to Atlanta angered many San Franciscans; one activist told the ​San Francisco Chronicle​ she and others considered this “stealing” their panels. In the 4,500 square-foot warehouse in Tucker, where the bulk of the panels were stored, panels were carefully folded and stacked on 75-foot-long shelves. Over the years, the quilt’s panels—10 percent of which were always traveling around the country—were separated, with some of them stored in Midtown and later near the Center for Civil and Human Rights and the bulk remaining in Tucker.

Even that space was not enough to hold the still-growing collection, and late last year, the NAMES Project announced the organization and the quilt were moving back to San Francisco, with the group’s archive of 200,000 letters, mementos, and photos heading to the Library of Congress. Much like when the quilt left San Francisco 18 years prior, 50 panels will remain in Atlanta to commemorate its presence in a city so greatly affected by a virus and disease we still fight.

This article appears in our October 2020 issue.