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Early Years of AIDS Remembered at New-York Historical Society

Photos Courtesy of New-York Historical Museum & Library Only slowly did the silence end: the flyer for the first AIDS vigils, the crowd assembled in Manhattan in May 1983 and the appearance of the quilt in Washington.
Photos Courtesy of New-York Historical Museum & Library
Only slowly did the silence end: the flyer for the first AIDS vigils, the crowd assembled in Manhattan in May 1983 and the appearance of the quilt in Washington.

“The past is neither dead nor past,” said Louise Mirrer, the president and CEO of the New-York Historical Society, paraphrasing the character Gavin Stevens in the William Faulkner novel “Requiem for a Nun.” “We see its effects everywhere.”

Mirrer made her remarks on May 31 at a press preview for a new exhibition at the Society’s Museum & Library, “AIDS in New York: The First Five Years.”

The exhibition, which covers the period immediately after the onslaught of the epidemic in 1981, includes critical early documents, such as Dr. Lawrence Mass’ coverage in the New York Native that predated the first story in the New York Times by almost two months as well as the first safe-sex pamphlet ever distributed, which was created by Michael Callen, Richard Berkowitz and Dr. Joseph Sonnabend.

The years chronicled, Society officials emphasized, preceded the explosion of mass activism that began with ACT UP in 1987.

“You’ve all seen silence equals death and this is essentially the years of the silence,” said Jean Ashton, the exhibition’s curator.

The materials on display were assembled from New-York Historical’s archives as well as those of the New York Public Library, New York University and the National Archive of LGBT History at Manhattan’s LGBT Community Center.

AIDS-Vigil2May1983_Poster

The New-York Historical Society Museum & Library (nyhistory.org) is located at 170 Central Park West at 76th Street. The exhibition runs June 7 through September 15. The later period of AIDS activism will be the subject of a New York Public Library exhibition, “Why We Fight: AIDS Activism and American Culture,” which will run from October 4 through April 6 of next year.

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