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AIDS Memorial Quilt, 1987

Use this primary source imagery to analyze major events in history.

Suggested Sequencing


In the early 1980s, a mysterious and deadly illness came to the public’s attention. In 1982, the New York Times published an article about a new immune system disorder that had affected 335 people, killing 136. Little was understood about this disease. Many incorrectly believed the illness was exclusive to gay men. The Reagan administration did little to address the epidemic, and those afflicted suffered not only from illness but also by societal stigma. The AIDS Memorial Quilt was created in 1985 as a memorial for those who had succumbed to the new disease. Each of the memorial panels on the quilt measures 3 by 6 feet, the size of an average grave, and most honor a particular person who died of AIDS. The quilt was displayed for the first time on the National Mall in Washington, DC, during the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1987. The quilt returned to Washington in 1988, 1989, 1992, and 1996, each time growing larger. To date, the quilt memorializes more than 94,000 people who have died of the disease.

Sourcing Questions

  1. Why was this quilt created?
  2. When and where was this quilt first revealed to the public? Why is it significant that the quilt was publicly displayed here five times?

Multiple quilts make up one large quilt that is spread out several hundred feet. People stand on all sides.

Figure 1: The AIDS Memorial Quilt of the Names Project Foundation is displayed on the National Mall in 1987. (credit: “AIDS Memorial Quilt” by Names Project Foundation)

Figure 2: The AIDS Memorial Quilt is shown on display on the National Mall with the Washington Monument in the background.

Comprehension Questions

  1. (Figure 1) (Figure 2) Explain the symbolism of the quilt and the individual quilt panels.
  2. (Figure 1) (Figure 2) Explain the significance of displaying the quilt in Washington, DC.
  3. The AIDS Memorial Quilt was digitized in a project by The University of Iowa Digital Studio for Public, Humanities, The New School, ATEC at The University of Texas at Dallas, and the National AIDS Memorial. Explore some of the individual panels of the quilt. What strikes you about these memorials?

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. Compare the AIDS epidemic with the 1919 flu epidemic (see the Chapter 11 The Spanish Flu of 1919 Narrative). What were the responses of society? What were the responses of the government?

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