Quilts hold a special place in American culture, reflecting pieces of our lives that are passed on from generation to generation. In 1987, a small group of people in San Francisco started a quilt to document the lives and stories of people who died from HIV/AIDS.
Twenty-five years and thousands of stops later, the AIDS Memorial Quilt returns to the National Mall for the first time in more than a decade. To date, more than 48,000 panels have been woven together to memorialize the lives lost to the pandemic.
NPR's Neal Conan talks with Gert McMullin, quilt production coordinator of the NAMES Project Foundation, and Chris Locklear, tour manager for the Call My Name Workshop Program about the quilt's journey and the power of memorials.
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, and we're broadcasting today from the National Mall in Washington and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Twenty-five years ago, a group of people in San Francisco started a project to memorialize the victims of the AIDS epidemic, a quilt made up of panels to remember the individuals behind the numbing statistics.
As it grew, the AIDS memorial quilt stopped off here in Washington and thousands of other places across the country and gathered panels along the way. Now more than 48,000 panels strong, it's back in Washington, D.C., with 8,000 of its panels unraveled here on the National Mall.
If you knew someone who fell victim to AIDS, what's your memorial? How do you remember them? 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, South African comedian Trevor Noah will join us, but first the AIDS quilt, and we begin with Chris Locklear, who is here with us in the tent at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Nice of you to join us today.
CHRIS LOCKLEAR: Thank you, nice to be here.
CONAN: And I understand that you and a group of your friends created panels for Kenneth Williams(ph), who died in 2007. Describe them, if you will, and how they tell us the story of his life.
LOCKLEAR: Well, the group of us, about 25 of us in Atlanta, were very, very close friends. We decided to memorialize our friend Kenneth, and we started in October of last year. When we first began making what we thought was going to be one panel, actually turned into eight panels, and so eight panels actually create an entire 12-by-12-foot block.
So, we knew that we wanted to put our friendship and the way that we hang out together and the way that we love each other on there, and then we also wanted to put, like, Kenneth's fashion sense on there because he was huge into fashion, and he loved, loved, loved clothes.
So when we first started doing it, we just thought that we were just going to make one with just fashion and just his pictures and stuff, and our pictures together. And then it actually turned into three panels that particular day. And so my friend Terry(ph) and I, we're very close, and we always talk to each other about everything that we're going to do, and we decided to just create five more.
One is from Detroit because we're from Detroit, Kenneth and six of us...
CONAN: Before you moved to Atlanta.
LOCKLEAR: Yes, and then we kind of like moved there within, like, two years of each other, between, like, '87 and '89. And so we made one from Detroit, we made one that represented Atlanta because we all migrated there, and we all lived there at one point, and we had to do a signature panel with all of us. And with our friends who don't even live in Atlanta anymore, we had them to just sign their names and text it or something, and then we just took it from there, and we've photographed it and then put the signatures on the signature panel.
Kenneth was always very witty, and so we decided to do one of just his famous quotes.
LOCKLEAR: And so, one of them is just his quotes. And then on the last one, we actually found his diary when he transitioned, and so it took us days to figure out if we were actually even supposed to open it. And so we were like yeah, OK, let's open it, let's see.
And in it we found what was his wish office. So we replicated that, and that was the last one that we decided to do.
CONAN: Well, also with us here in the tent at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival is Gert McMullin, chief quilt production coordinator of the NAMES Project Foundation, one of the original volunteers with the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Good of you to be with us today.
GERT MCMULLIN: Thank you.
CONAN: And what Chris was just explaining, I think that answers the question, why a quilt.
MCMULLIN: Why a quilt? Well, for me it was because I was angry. I - Mike Smith(ph) had mentioned it earlier in a segment that we had done. Ours was more of an activist manner, I think, when we started. And I was angry. I wanted people to know that I loved this person and that they had died a horrible death. Nobody seemed to care.
And we were taking and putting our dead down in front of the White House. One of the reasons it's three-by-six is - that's three-foot-by-six-foot, is that's the size of a grave. And so originally I think it started out as something vastly different than what it has turned into now, which is very needed.
I mean, it's a great, it's a beautiful memorial. I love having my friends on it. I've made hundreds of panels. But it really started out for me out of anger and desperation, I think.
CONAN: What was the first one you made?
MCMULLIN: The first two panels I made were for Roger Lyon(ph), who was an activist, who actually the Smithsonian has a copy of one of the first panels I made for him. He was well-known for a quote in front of the House of Representatives: I don't want my death to be I died of red tape. It was many, many years ago.
The other was for David Calgaro(ph), a good of mine who worked at Macy's, and they both died in the early '80s.
CONAN: And I have to ask you, Chris Locklear, you're also here as tour manager for the Call My Name Workshop Program at the NAMES Project Foundation. I think these are some of - the back wall of the tent that we're broadcasting from today is made up of some of the panels that are the project of the NAMES Foundation.
LOCKLEAR: Oh yes, yes, and the Call My Name Workshop, we're actually working over at the Quilting Bee tent right now, and we've been doing workshops in about 10 different cities around the country, trying to get more African-Americans represented on the quilt.
There is about 55 miles long, if they laid it out, it's about 55 miles long, and only about a half-mile is represented from African-Americans. And we just thought that that was, like, really, really telling. We were, like, wow, you know, we're not getting it out to the African-American community, and we need to be represented on this quilt.
So we've been doing that at various churches around the country, various social work and activists, social work networking offices, and it's been really good, very, very well-received, and we've had a very, very good time. Some stories that I'd never thought I'd ever hear from people, and it's just been very, very good.
CONAN: We want to hear from members of our audience. We're talking about the AIDS quilt, and we want to hear, if you've lost someone to AIDS, what's your memorial? 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. And we'll start with Tim(ph), and Tim's on the line with us from San Francisco.
TIM: Hi, thank you for taking my call. One of the things that I do to remember my friends who have passed, and I had quite a few of them die in the '90s and early 2000s, is I volunteer at the National AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park, and it's a national monument, and it resides in Golden Gate Park, and it's the only way because so many of my friends died not around me, but it's the only way I've been able to grieve them and their deaths because when they were dying, they all died kind of at the same time.
So this lets me grieve a little bit at a time for them and also to remember them. And it's one of the most beautiful parts of Golden Gate Park. It's just behind the Science Museum and the de Young Museum. But if you're in Golden Gate Park, please go to the AIDS Memorial Grove. It's on every map, and it's basically one of the most beautiful places in the park.
And I can't wait every month to volunteer there, so - and it's full of life, believe it or not. It's a great place to come and have a picnic and hang out and be with your friends both past and present.
CONAN: Tim, thanks very much, we appreciate it.
TIM: Yeah, thank you.
CONAN: Let's go next to the microphone here in the tent on the National Mall.
ANTHONY KNIGHT: Hi, my name is Anthony Knight(ph), and I'm here as part of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, serving as a moderator actually in this very tent. But I decided to use this year and the opportunity of being here on the mall to honor and memorialize my cousin, Marcellus Dewey(ph), who died in April of '93.
At the time of his death, I was living here in Washington, and instead of going to New York for the funeral, which is where we're from, I decided to stay here in D.C., make a panel and march because there was a march, as it would happen, that year here in Washington regarding LGBTQ rights. And so I decided to make a panel and march in memory of him during that time.
Here we are almost 20 years later, and I still had that panel wrapped up in my closet, and I thought, well, this would be a perfect opportunity to bring it, finish it up and add it to the quilt and not only commemorate the 25th anniversary of the quilt but also continue to honor the memory of my cousin, who in the family we called Marty Junior.
CONAN: And what does Marty Junior's panel look like?
KNIGHT: It's really simple because I'm not a real artistic person when it comes to sewing, but I had a big heart, red heart in the middle. I think I had Marty Junior on top and the dates of his birth and death at the bottom and the on each side a pink triangle to represent the fact that he was a gay man.
And we were first cousins, and I just loved him a lot. We were really good friends at the time of his death.
CONAN: Thank you, appreciate it, and you've added it to the quilt now?
KNIGHT: Yes, it's over there. I'm actually going to be working on it in between my shifts here at this tent. I'll be going over there to help the ladies work on it, and it'll be added to the quilt.
CONAN: Thanks very much.
KNIGHT: Thank you.
CONAN: Gert McMullin, that raises the question: If like our guest here you had a panel or wanted to contribute one, how do you do it?
MCMULLIN: Well, you can make - well, you can call us, and we can give you all of the directions. There are a few rules that a lot of people don't follow, frankly, but...
CONAN: I can't imagine why.
MCMULLIN: Well, you know, when you're grieving, you know, you don't really listen to what people are saying to you. But pretty much they're supposed to be three by six, and it's supposed to have the name of somebody who died of AIDS. Other than that, it's your to embellish in any way you want to, any way you want to. We don't judge anything.
And once it's done, they can either be brought into the workshop or sent in or brought in to a display like this, and we'll probably have some kind of ceremonial-type thing the last day here where they can actually - the ceremony will bring them up into the center, and we will add them into the quilt. But there may be...
CONAN: And they literally sewn into adjoining panels?
MCMULLIN: Eventually, yeah. Then that's what I do. I sew the panels. There's - eight panels go into one 12-by-12, as you can see behind me, and we sew them all together. Actually, we repair them individually first, then we sew them together (unintelligible) grommet them and photograph them, and then they're ready to go out.
CONAN: It's hard for our listeners to see them, the people here in the tent, but Richard Garcia(ph) and Steven Weber(ph), and there's one of those red hearts. There's a panel for Chris Pace(ph). There's a panel for unknown with a crying angel with tears coming out of its eyes. That's nice work.
MCMULLIN: Yeah, it's really beautiful. I mean, they're all - some are very elaborate, but they're all beautiful. I mean, they look into our souls, I think, and what we felt about those people and how we miss them. And it's hard not to think of all - every single one of them as just being beautiful.
CONAN: Fifty-five miles long, though, if unfurled all at once, has that ever happened?
MCMULLIN: Oh yes. Last time that happened was in 1996 here at the mall. And we took up, oh my God, all of the mall, all the way down and into the trees where we are now on all sides. So it was quite a display.
CONAN: We'll talk more about the AIDS quilt in just a moment. If you knew someone who fell victim to AIDS, what's your memorial? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us. Our guests are Chris Locklear, tour manager for the Call My Name Workshop Program at the NAMES Project Foundation; and Gert McMullin, the quilt production coordinator for the NAMES Project Foundation. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, broadcasting from the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. We're talking this hour about the AIDS quilt and the power of memorial. Started in 1987, it's grown to nearly 50,000 panels to honor those lost to the AIDS epidemic. If you knew someone who fell victim to AIDS, what's your memorial? 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Our guests are Chris Locklear, he created a block of the AIDS quilt for his friend Kenneth Williams, who passed away in 2007. He also serves as tour manager for the Call My Name Workshop Program at the NAMES Project Foundation; and Gert McMullin, quilt production coordinator for the NAMES Project Foundation, one of the original volunteers with the AIDS memorial quilt.
We mentioned the time it rolled out here on the mall previously. This is an email from Mary(ph) in South Bend, Indiana: I'm a United Methodist pastor. One of my best friends, who was also a parishioner, died of AIDS. His partner created a panel for the quilt, which included a cloth book attached, which has the memories of our beloved Larry Lyle(ph) for many of our members.
In 1996, 23 of us traveled to Washington to view the panels. It was so deeply moving to see Larry's panels with so many others and to honor their memories together. And Chris Locklear, I wonder, that's kind of the power of this, not only that each of the individuals is remembered, but they are remembered together.
LOCKLEAR: Oh yes, that's very powerful, yes, yes. What we really tried to create on our block, we really wanted people to really see how we loved him and how we love each other and the power of just sheer friendship and joy and love and just creating our own community over the years and how we have lasted.
And we really wanted that to be represented, and then when you see, like, ours against somebody else's and against, like, a baby and somebody who was a Marine, and just you keep going and going. And like a young lady came in the other day, and she wanted to make a panel for her grandparents. And I was like wow, and, you know, when I hear stories like that, and then when you see it all together, you realize that it's everybody.
Everybody is affected by HIV and AIDS. And it's really, really powerful and moving, I believe so.
CONAN: And it's interesting, Gert McMullin, you were talking about the anger at first and how that has evolved over the years. I suspect there's still a germ of anger there, though.
MCMULLIN: I actually am all anger.
MCMULLIN: You know, when you go through these stages of grief, and I have never left the anger stage. It's what gives me my - you know, anger gives me my strength to go on, and I am really angry. Now, I mean, I get sad and all that, too, but if I stay there, I'll get more done. That's the way I think, anyway.
CONAN: Let's go next to Bill(ph), Bill's on the line with us from Columbia, Missouri.
BILL: Yeah, hi, Neal. I wanted to talk about my memorial to my cousin who died in 1996 from AIDS. He was a special person, and I loved him dearly. And I didn't realize over the years how much I had hurt him because I used to vehemently anti-gay. No one in our family knew he was gay because to live his lifestyle, he had to move out of state and separate himself from his family.
And it came to light when he had AIDS when we couldn't find him, and his roommate said, well, he's been very, very sick. And so the family went out to see him, and it turned out he had AIDS, and we brought him home. But up to that point, nobody knew that he had AIDS, and quite frankly, we didn't realize how much we had hurt him over the years, me in particular.
And this was a young man who brought me to God. And I just wanted to say that my memorial to my cousin and to the AIDS epidemic is that, you know, my cousin - I now live a life of shame. You know, I basically hurt my family member extremely and didn't realize it at the time.
And so since then, what I've tried to do is live a life where I'm openly supportive of the gay community, and I'm no longer - I don't care who gets married. I just want to see people happy. I don't want to see people living in shame or in hurt or in isolation.
And so now, where I used to be vehemently and openly anti-gay, I try to do what I can to stand up for gay rights. And, in fact it, turns out that my brother is gay. And so there's a lot to be said for being careful about what you think and what you say in your life.
CONAN: I wonder, did you get the chance to talk with your cousin before he died?
BILL: No, he wanted to be alone. And so he pretty much died in isolation. And I've always wondered: Did he know how much I loved him?
CONAN: I think we still hear the emotion in your voice, and I don't know the answer to your question, I'm not sure you ever will, either.
BILL: I know, it's just, you know, trying to make amends.
MCMULLIN: You'll do him right.
MCMULLIN: You already have, actually, today.
CONAN: That's Gert McMullin, one of our guests here on the program. And all we can ask you to do is keep working at it.
BILL: I certainly will, and thank you for your show.
CONAN: Thanks for the phone call, appreciate it. I know that wasn't an easy thing to say. And I have to say, Chris Locklear, I saw you wiping away a tear.
LOCKLEAR: Yeah because after Kenneth transitioned, we experienced a little of that but not within our core community, but we did with people who were, like, well, should you do it, maybe you shouldn't do it, it'll be memorialized forever, people are going to know that he had HIV and AIDS, you know, that type of thing.
And I was like, well, I don't care. You know, I don't care what other people know and what they think. This is my friend. I have known him since we were 16 years old. I'm going to memorialize this man, and I don't care who thinks anything about it, you know what I mean. And when he was just talking, the man, the caller, it just reminded me of that and what people were thinking and saying.
And it's just - to me it's just so ignorant sometimes. And I'm like wow, you can't really listen to that. You have to listen to your heart and listen to your soul and do what you think is right, and that's what we try to do.
CONAN: Here's an email from Laura(ph) in San Antonio: I saw the AIDS quilt in San Antonio many years ago. Each panel had been made with such love and care, and while all of them touched me deeply, there was one that still stands out for me. The panel was made by an IRS agent who'd processed the estate return for a young man who had died from AIDS.
The young man either had no family or maybe none that would claim him. Everything concerning this young man's death, including provisions for burial, had been done through the probate court's appointed executor. This IRS agent felt that someone needed to honor and remember this young man.
So the agent made a panel in his honor. What a beautiful gesture. Let's go next to - this is Dorothy(ph), let's see if I can do this properly, and Dorothy's on the line with us from Portland.
DOROTHY: Yeah, from Portland, but my son died of AIDS, and we lived in San Francisco at the time. It's been almost 20 years, and I'm of course his mother, and I've been involved with the AIDS quilt, and I've done a couple TV spots. But basically what I want to talk about is I honor my son.
For four years, I volunteered at St. Mary's Medical Center in San Francisco in a unit called a care unit. These were men and women dying with AIDS dementia, and I was accepted because I was a health professional. And people would say: How can you do that after your son just died from AIDS? And I said: How can I not do that?
And it was an amazing journey. The unit itself was highlighted at the International AIDS Conference in Berlin in '95 for its cutting research on step-down facilities for AIDS dementia patients.
And the other way I honor my son, he was a great learner. He held two degrees; he was working on a third degree in electrical engineering at Stanford when he took ill. He was the lead research engineer in software design for Chevron. He traveled the world. You know, in the short life he had, he lived 30 years, most people don't live 100 years.
And my experience is a little bit different. It was a love journey from the day he told us he had - he was gay. And that was like 15 years before he died of AIDS. And so I had all this love and heart in this journey with my son. So, you know, naturally there's pain when it actually happens, but he was surrounded, and I was surrounded by a city in San Francisco that held me up like you wouldn't believe.
I took a lot of X-rays of AIDS patients, and they were teaching the world - the partners - and they were teaching the world what love is because they were supporting these dying men. And these dying men we owe so much to for, you know, for the fact that the drug companies were brought to their knees to release drugs long before they said they could.
And all peoples, today, you know, benefit from that. So I just wanted to say the other - you know, that I went back to school. I internalized David's(ph) love of learning. I earned a bachelor's in psychology at San Francisco State. Recently up here in Portland, I earned a master's in social work.
So he lives on in my heart, and it just, it just has moved me to do so much more than I ever did. I spent three years, recently, advocating for my brother, who was homeless in Chicago. I did it long-distance. I probably talked to 3,000 people, truth to power many of them. And, you know, it's just been the most remarkable journey. I guess that's all I want to say.
CONAN: I think there's a lot you want to say, but thank you for encapsulating it there. And thank you so much for the phone call. We appreciate it.
DOROTHY: Thank you.
CONAN: And I wanted to ask a - what may be a provocative question now. This is from an email from Mark(ph) in Little Rock. And, Gert McMullin, I think we heard part of the answer in what we just heard about the effort to have the drug companies release drugs more proactively than they ever did in the past. The AIDS deaths, Mark writes, are terribly unfortunate. Why should an AIDS death be memorialized any more than, for instance, a death from cancer?
MCMULLIN: Well, I think - well, for me, it's because nobody was doing it. I'm sorry. For me, it was because nobody was doing anything and - or cared. And we were - you know, felt like we were abandoned. And I don't - I mean, I don't see that happening with people with cancer and all, and there was no place to turn. And I was devastated, and I was - and angry before.
MCMULLIN: I think that's why we did it. We did it so that we would be counted, and we - they would see that we mattered. And...
CONAN: There were, at that time - and still today - many cancer foundations doing extensive research. AIDS, Chris Locklear, was something else. It was - there was a lot of stigma attached to it.
LOCKLEAR: Yes, a lot of stigma. And I remember being in college in '87, '88, the early '90s. And I remember just seeing a person on a Thursday, and then going to the club on a Saturday and hearing that that person had died. And it was happening a lot, like every week you'd see somebody, and then the next week they would not be there, you know? So I understand what Gert means about the anger because nothing was being done.
I mean, people were dropping like flies, and we just felt like nothing was being done, like your voice was not being heard, you know? So I totally understand what she means about - you know. You had to do it in some kind of way. Doing some type of activism and memorializing people, putting their names out there and calling their names, I think, is perfect.
CONAN: We're talking with Chris Locklear, who's the tour manager for Call My Name Workshop Program at The NAMES Project Foundation, and Gert McMullin, one of the original volunteers with the AIDS Memorial Quilt, now the quilt production coordinator with The NAMES Project Foundation. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And this question from Don(ph): What happens to the quilt when it rains?
MCMULLIN: Well, we get it up really quick. We have what we call an emergency rain fold, and we train all the volunteers for that. We put plastic under - a little thing, a plastic underneath each quilt. And it gets folded up really, really quickly and covered and then either brought into a truck. It rains almost every single time we ever come to D.C., so...
CONAN: Well, let's hope it rains this time. We could use a little bit, with the temperatures down here...
MCMULLIN: Thank you.
CONAN: ...a few thousand degrees. And let's see. We go next to Bonnie(ph). Bonnie is on the line with us from San Jose, I think.
BONNIE: My name is Bonnie Smith(ph), and I'm a textile artist. But in the late '80s, a great friend of mine, Gary Schumacher(ph), who lived in Houston, Texas, where I was living at the time, passed away with AIDS. And each time I would go visit him, I would always take him some fresh acorns from the tree because he was locked into this AIDS hospital.
And after he passed away, they gave me a poem and a glassed acorn that he had had somebody buy to give me. It took me almost 20 years to get through this poem he wrote. And what it was about was him as an artist painting his room because he had many things to accomplish before he died of AIDS. And then when he was finished painting the room, then he would go.
So as a textile artist today, one day I pulled the poem out and finally read it. And I wrote it very largely on muslin, and then I covered it with empty Lipton tea bags that I've dyed and stained and fastened them down. And then I quilted and then let masses of strings hang from it. And I'm getting ready to make the piece again, and it's going to be in a traveling exhibit titled "Art Can't Hurt," which I think is very appropriate about the poem, him, AIDS and what we're talking about today.
CONAN: And why did it take you so long to get through the poem?
BONNIE: I tell people - I'm going to get upset. He was the brother I always wanted. And it just was too hard to lose somebody that you cared about so much. So young, he was such a wonderful friend of my family, my children, my husband. He touched everybody with his kindness. You know, from him I learned it takes so little to be nice and that we should just spread that around some more.
But there were times that I would sit and pull it out of the envelope and read a little bit, and then it might be years before I could bring myself to open the book back up and read some more of it. I don't think there's too many things in life that touch you that much, and I'm just glad to have known him. I always tell my children, consider yourself lucky that you...
CONAN: Bonnie, thanks very much for sharing that story. I know that isn't easy.
BONNIE: Oh, thank you.
CONAN: Appreciate the phone call. Gert, where does the AIDS quilt go from here?
MCMULLIN: Well, we keep displaying it, and we have displays constantly all over the country and sometimes around the world. But we - so we're always busy. This is a big display, but we'll keep going on and hopefully come back to D.C. again. And we have World AIDS Day coming up, which is a lot of quilt going out on December 1, but we have displays year-round all the time.
CONAN: And how many trucks does it take to carry the AIDS quilt at this point?
MCMULLIN: Well, I mean, well it kind of depends on how - if you were going to do the whole thing, it would probably take, what, about six or eight big train canisters, I think, something like that. It's a lot of trucks.
CONAN: You'll need one of those containers (unintelligible).
MCMULLIN: Yeah, right, the containers, yeah.
CONAN: Well, thanks very much for bringing it to Washington, D.C., the parts of it that you have, and for letting us...
MCMULLIN: My pleasure.
CONAN: ...share this tent with your project. Appreciate it.
CONAN: That's Gert McMullin, quilt production coordinator of the NAMES Project Foundation. Our thanks as well to Chris Locklear, the tour manager for the Call My Name Workshop Program at the NAMES Project Foundation. Coming up, South Africa has its first stand-up comedy star now making a name for himself here in the United States. Trevor Noah will join us next. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.