Online Extra: AIDS quilt begins to arrive in East Bay

  • by Cynthia Laird, News Editor
  • Saturday February 15, 2020
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Roddy Williams stacks an AIDS quilt block on shelving in a San Leandro warehouse Friday, February 14, as the first of three semi-truckloads arrive from Atlanta. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Roddy Williams stacks an AIDS quilt block on shelving in a San Leandro warehouse Friday, February 14, as the first of three semi-truckloads arrive from Atlanta. Photo: Rick Gerharter

In a nondescript warehouse near Oakland International Airport, volunteers gathered on Valentine's Day to begin the solemn — yet joyful — task of unloading blocks of the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

It was the first official day that people began taking the quilt blocks out of blue bins, folding them, and arranging them on a sophisticated shelving system, piece by piece, number by number.

Representative from the National AIDS Memorial Grove were on hand at the San Leandro warehouse, as well as Roddy Williams and Kevin "Chili" Crane, two gay men from the Names Project that the grove flew from Atlanta to help unpack and organize the remembrances of thousands of people lost to HIV/AIDS.

Funding for the quilt's move, renovating the San Leandro warehouse, and helping wind down the Names Project came from a $2.4 million donation from Gilead Sciences Inc., AIDS grove Executive Director John Cunningham said.

The Names Project Foundation used to be located in San Francisco. Its history dates back to 1985 when Cleve Jones had participants in that year's annual candlelight march honoring the deaths of gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone write down the names of people lost to AIDS onto placards that were then attached to the federal building near City Hall.

Last November, the AIDS grove and the Names Project, which had overseen the quilt, announced that the grove would be taking over stewardship of the 50,000 panels that make up the historic memorial. It was stated then that the quilt would be moved from Atlanta to the Bay Area.

This week, the first blocks arrived, via truck from Lathrop in San Joaquin County, after a rail ride from Georgia, said Gina Gatta, a gay woman and former grove board chair who was driving the forklift moving boxes from the truck to the warehouse. Each block — there are 5,976 according to quilt co-founder Mike Smith — contains eight individual panels, most with one name each. Around 100,000 people are memorialized, as some of the panels contain multiple names, Smith explained.

Gert McMullin, a straight ally and one of the co-founders of the quilt, along with longtime gay activists Smith and Jones, marveled at the sight.

"I knew it'd come back eventually," McMullin told the Bay Area Reporter during an exclusive media sneak peak Friday. McMullin, too has "come back," as she relocated to the Bay Area, where she will help with repairing quilt blocks.

Lonnie Payne, a gay former San Francisco resident who retired to Napa with his husband, Bruce Clark, was among the first group of volunteers.

"Bruce and I came on Valentine's Day," he said. "It's a great way to talk about love."

Crane said the quilt's cross country move was "bittersweet."

"I've been with the quilt for 16 years," he said during a short break.

Jones wasn't there Friday, but he told the B.A.R. in a phone interview late that afternoon that he's thrilled.

"Two parts overwhelm me with gratitude and release," he said.

"The fabric itself — individual works of art created by grieving families, partners, lovers, and friends — is back safe in the city that created it and that's very important to me," he said, referring to the fact that while the quilt is stored in the East Bay, the AIDS grove offices are in San Francisco, as is the grove, which is located in Golden Gate Park.

"Second, the Library of Congress is responsible for curating the archive, which is about 250,000 pieces," Jones added.

At last November's announcement that the quilt would return to the Bay Area, Names Project officials said that the Library of Congress would be the new repository for the quilt's vast archival collections.

Jones said that was important because LGBT organizations need to partner with institutions that will be around in 50 or 100 years.

"That, to me, is a victory," he said, referring to the Library of Congress' role in preserving the history of the quilt.

Back at the warehouse, Cunningham said two more trucks will arrive next week.

Many quilt blocks were sent out to schools, museums, and other places for last year's World AIDS Day observance, Smith said. Once that was over in December, those quilt blocks were shipped directly to the Bay Area instead of returning to Atlanta.

"World AIDS Day saved us one railway car," he said.

Smith, the former executive director of the AIDS Emergency Fund, splits his time between North Carolina and San Francisco. He said he'd be staying in the city as the quilt is relocated and stored.

"They did a wonderful job of caring for it in Atlanta," he said of the Names Project. "But as Dorothy said, there's no place like home."

The Bay Area Reporter will have more on this story next week.