The first panels made their way home to San Francisco, Calif. to the National AIDS Memorial. They were on display at the World AIDS Day event on Dec. 1 where Quilt creator Cleve Jones (speaking) and Mike Smith shared the story of its beginnings. (Photo Credit: Trish Tunney/National AIDS Memorial)

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — On Dec. 1, more than 1,500 people gathered at the National AIDS Memorial to welcome home the first group of panels of the AIDS Memorial Quilt (the Quilt) back to San Francisco and honor leaders who helped bring together the voices of the epidemic with “profound courage, unrelenting hope and unity of humankind,” organizers shared.

The two days of ceremonies and events focused on “Common Threads-Common Ground,” weaving together personal stories that made a difference in the HIV/AIDS movement. World AIDS Day and Light in the Grove ceremonies were made possible through the support from Quest Diagnostics as this year’s “Presenting Angel Partner” and Chevron, Gilead Sciences and Wells Fargo, as “Legacy Partners.”

Rick Welts, president & COO of the Golden State Warriors, was honored with the National Leadership Recognition Award. He was the first prominent male executive in professional sports to announce his sexual orientation publicly, Welts lost his longtime partner, Arnie Chinn, to AIDS and mourned him in silence. “His courageous decision to come out publicly delivered a significant blow to the stigma and discrimination that continues to fuel the spread of HIV and diminish the self-esteem of LGBT youth, in particular,” added organizers.

“It is an honor to receive this award from the National AIDS Memorial, which is such an important place for so many of us to heal, remember and share the stories of those who have died from AIDS,” said Welts. “These national treasures — this memorial and our beloved quilt — help to keep their memories alive and are reminders to those struggling with who they are, or living with HIV or AIDS, that they are loved, that they are important, that there is hope, and that they share a common bond with so many.”

The Thom Weyand Unsung Hero Award was presented to Leslie Ewing, who has dedicated much of her life to LGBTQ civil rights. Ewing co-founded the ACT-UP affinity group Queer and Present Danger; she was an early volunteer coordinator for the Quilt, joining other activists in the marches in Washington D.C.; she helped lead the AIDS Emergency Fund; raised over $2 million for local AIDS organizations with Under One Roof; and served as executive director of the Pacific Center in Berkeley, where she recently retired.

Two programs of the National AIDS Memorial were featured during World AIDS Day. The Surviving Voices Storytelling Project, funded primarily through a grant from Chevron, unveiled a video tribute honoring the transgender community. Additionally, $50,000 in scholarships was awarded to 10 students through the Pedro Zamora Young Leadership Scholarship. Gilead Sciences and Wells Fargo are major funders of the scholarship program.

Cleve Jones and Mike Smith shared the story of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, when 32 years ago during the height of the AIDS epidemic, a group of strangers gathered at a San Francisco storefront to remember the names and lives of their loved ones they feared history would forget. It was that simple act of love and defiance, where the first panels of the Quilt were created, which sparked a national movement, that continues today. Now, the Quilt is a social justice teaching tool, having grown to more than 50,000 3-by 6-foot memorial panels, individually sewn together to tell the personal stories of more than 105,000 lives lost to AIDS.

In November at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, along with Reps. John Lewis and Barbara Lee, announced that the Quilt would move from the NAMES Project Foundation in Atlanta, Ga. where it has been cared for since 2001, back to the San Francisco Bay Area, under the stewardship of the National AIDS Memorial. The Quilt archival collection was transferred under the care of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, making it available to the public through the world’s largest public library.

“The enormity of loss our beloved quilt represents is so profound, and what has kept so many of us moving forward when, at so many times during this painful journey, we thought it was over,” said Jones. “I cannot express how meaningful it is to have the Quilt return to San Francisco, where it will live forever so that every story, every life, every friend and lover, will never, ever be forgotten.”

The first Quilt panels to arrive back in San Francisco were on display during World AIDS Day. All of the Quilt panels will return to the Bay Area in early 2020, where the Quilt’s programs, which include displays in communities across the nation, panel making, conservation, and public education efforts, will transition to the National AIDS Memorial.

Gilead Sciences announced a $2.4 million grant to the National AIDS Memorial — the largest single grant the organization has ever received — that will be used to fund the Quilt programs, support its move back to San Francisco and launch a new public education initiative in 2020 to bring the Quilt displays into communities across the country, particularly in regions adversely impacted by HIV.

Gilead Sciences Chairman and CEO Daniel O’Day said, “The Quilt has played an important role in inspiring activism, fostering hope and educating the nation about the story of HIV/AIDS. Through this partnership, we are proud to help keep this story alive for future generations.”

On the eve of World AIDS Day, the National AIDS Memorial was artistically-illuminated with light displays as part of the annual Light in the Grove gala. This year’s guests experienced a candlelight reflection at the Circle of Friends and walked through the illuminated Redwood Grove with musical choreographed performances.

During Light in the Grove, Mario P. Diaz, a former National AIDS Memorial board member and longtime community relations leader with Wells Fargo, received the Lifetime of Commitment Award. Dario, who retired this year, held various positions within the Wells Fargo Foundation, managed the charitable philanthropic program and volunteerism for the greater San Francisco region.

In 1996, legislation by Pelosi was signed into law by President Bill Clinton, elevating “the Grove” as the nation’s sole federally-designated National AIDS Memorial.


Lainey Millen was formerly QNotes' associate editor, special assignments writer, N.C. and U.S./World News Notes columnist and production director from 2001-2019 when she retired.