The History of the NAMES AIDS Memorial Quilt

The NAMES AIDS Memorial Quilt (also known as the AIDS Memorial Quilt) is a massive community folk arts project that served as one of the most powerful activist tools used during the height of the AIDS pandemic.

AIDS Memorial Quilt
Sygma via Getty Images / Getty Images


The AIDS Memorial Quilt was conceived in 1985 by AIDS activist Cleve Jones, co-founder of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, during the candlelight vigil used to mark the 1978 assassinations of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. During the vigil, organizers requested that marchers commemorate loved ones lost to AIDS by pasting their names onto the front of the San Francisco Federal Building. The patchwork of colorful signs resembled, both to Jones and his colleagues, an enormous inspirational quilt.

That inspiration led to the founding of the NAMES Project Foundation (NPF), a grassroots endeavor by which bereaved families, spouses, and friends were encouraged to share their grief and loss by creating commemorative quilt panels. The panels—measuring 3' by 6' and made of fabric, decorative objects, and personal belongings—paid tribute to one or several individuals who had died of AIDS, which would then be assembled into larger 12' by 12' blocks.

The grassroots project soon grew in scale as both the number of deaths and increasing anger at the Reagan/Bush administrations spurred media and public interest. By the time of its first showing in 1987 at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the AIDS Memorial Quilt included 1,920 panels and covered an area approximately the size of a football field. A subsequent tour raised in excess of $500,000 and contributed over 4,000 additional panels by the end of the 20-city tour.

By 1992—when the number of AIDS-related deaths in the U.S. had passed 150,000—the AIDS Memorial Quilt had panels from every U.S. state and 28 countries.

By 1996—during which time AIDS deaths ballooned to over 350,000—the number of panels had grown to such an extent as to cover the entire breadth of the National Mall in what is today remembered as the largest, single display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt (see picture above).


All told, the NAMES AIDS Memorial Quilt comprises over 48,000 panels (representing over 94,000 individuals) and weighs well over 54 tons. It inspired the 1989 Academy Award-winning documentary, Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, as well as similar quilt-based initiatives, including the Breast Cancer Quilt and a number of projects commemorating the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

A number of notable individuals who died of AIDS are commemorated on the AIDS Memorial Quilt, including (in alphabetical order):

  • Arthur Ashe, professional tennis player (1943-1993)
  • Eazy-E (Eric Lynn Wright), gangsta rapper with hip hop group NWA (1963-1995)
  • Perry Ellis, fashion designer (1940-1986)
  • Rock Hudson, Hollywood actor (1925-1985)
  • Richard Hunt, Muppets puppeteer who voiced Scooter, Beaker, and others (1951-1992)
  • Liberace, entertainer and pianist (1919-1987)
  • Freddie Mercury, lead vocalist with the rock group Queen (1946-1991)
  • Rudolf Nureyev, ballet star (1938-1993)
  • Anthony Perkins, Hollywood actor (1932-1992)
  • Robert Reed, star of TV’s The Brady Bunch (1932-1992)
  • Tim Richmond, NASCAR legend (1955-1989)
  • Max Robinson, ABC News anchor (1939-1988)
  • Jerry Smith, Washington Redskins NFL star (1943-1986)
  • Ryan White, Indiana teen whose death inspired the Ryan White CARE Act (1971-1990)
  • Ricky Wilson, guitarist with the rock group The B-52s (1953-1985)

In 2012, the AIDS Memorial Quilt was displayed in sections throughout Washington, D.C. as part of the XIX International AIDS Conference, as well as during the 2012 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. As many as 3,000 panels are displayed every year, the ongoing support of which aims to ensure the ongoing preservation of what the U.S. Congress in 2005 declared a National Cultural Treasure.

The National AIDS Memorial in San Francisco, CA took over responsibility of the quilt in 2019.

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  1. Fee E. The AIDS memorial quiltAm J Public Health. 2006;96(6):979. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2006.088575

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. HIV/AIDS Surveillance: U.S. AIDS cases reported through December 1992. Published February 1993.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. HIV/AIDS Surveillance Report: U.S. HIV and AIDS cases reported through December 1996. Published December 1996.